RARA-AVIS: serial killers

Mark Sullivan (AnonymeInc@webtv.net)
Tue, 22 Jun 1999 20:35:23 -0400 (EDT)

A few ideas I've been thinking about lately:

Raymond Chandler once famously wrote:

"Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse: and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish."

Somehow, I think too many writers have gotten away from that treatise and I think the increased reliance on serial killers as villains is largely to blame. True, as John Douglas reminds us in all of his true crime books, serial killers do have motive, it just isn't a prosaic one like most people's who kill for one of the usual "deadly sins," lust, envy, greed, pride, gluttony or simple anger (seldom sloth, although it probably could be argued some kill because they are too lazy to work for their money).

Don't get me wrong, I can see how tempting serial killers are for writers, they can add a nice touch of the Grand Guignol ("not just to provide a corpse," but to provide corpses, plural), and allow the writer to get truly perverse and blame it on the character. And fictional serial killers make perversely romantic figures; giving in to their every urge, they are almost to be envied, then pitied as they become jaded and can no longer get the same joy from their gruesome deeds.

For all of the graphic violence and high body counts in serial killer books, though, I think the sensibility is actually closer to cozies than hardboiled and/or noir. In cozies, all of society's ills are ritually bound within the person of the murderer. When s/he is caught, society is rid of evil and again makes sense -- the crime was an aberration. In hardboiled and noir, the killer's motive, more often than not, is a barely, if at all, exaggerated version of some trait that our society views as good -- it's business as usual, s/he just went a little overboard in their tactics. So the evil is systemic and the capture, incarceration and/or death of the criminal is a symbolic victory at best. It is clear to everyone, writer, character and reader alike, that the particular crime was not unusual at all.

A serial killer, however, is defined as being outside of society, therefore his actions are no indictment of the society. If his making is explored at all, it is always given a singular, psychological explanation, not a sociological one. And when this unique serial killer is caught, society can return to normalcy.

So I guess what I'm saying is, serial killer books are merely cozies dipped in blood.


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