Re: RARA-AVIS: The American Way (was serial killers)

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 04 Mar 2000

Hey, hey, hey, Mark B. You can't shut down this thread before I have a chance to re-enter the fray.

I agree pretty much entirely with what you have to say about serial killers in hardboiled fiction and have said similar things in the past. I'm right with you in thinking that serial killer books are closer to cozies than hardboiled or noir. Instead of looking at real people who commit murder for real reasons, they handily isolate evil in one person, the serial killer; when that one person is caught, society is again whole and rational. By adding the trait of psycho- and/or socio-pathy, the killer is defined as outside of society. To me, HB and noir contain elements of indictment about society as a whole -- the evil cannot be isolated.

That said, I believe serial killer books should be separated into two categories -- those in the relatively new, separate genre of serial killer books, of which Thomas Harris would probably be the exemplar and hardboiled murder mysteries where the killer turns out to be a serial killer (almost every recent series of any length has at least one). It is this latter category that I find particularly tiresome, most guilty of the evils Mark B claims, of using crazy as an excuse for sloppiness.

In addition, you can sometimes, too late, find yourself reading a serial killer book against your will since these are often advertised as PI or cop books, Mark is right that I would have been pretty pissed if the killer in LA Requiem had been a serial killer. Still, I must admit I still found the quick gloss over the killer's psychopathology pretty inconsistent, one of my few reservations about a book I liked overall.

These inconsistencies also appear in Serial Killer novels, per se. (At least these are labelled as such, though, so those of us who aren't fans can avoid them.) Before I am dismissed for not knowing what I'm talking about, I've read a number of the standards, even enjoyed some of them -- Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs, Killing Time, one Sandford, one Carol O'Connell, couldn't make it all of the way though a Rex Miller (how in the world could Harlan Ellison, who picketed against Brian DePalma's depiction of women give the vilely misogynistic Rex Miller a positive blurb?); and I've seen films of more -- Kiss the Girls and a whole bunch of made for cable movies, for instance.

Even in Harris's books, with his reams of research, the accurate particulars of physical evidence and the hints at psychological depth
(by the way, Dahmer could not have been an inspiration of Silence as the book came out before he was caught) serve to hide that some overriding facts about serial killers are wrong or, at least, exaggerated (as per Robert Ressler and John Douglas, the two profilers who taught Harris everything he knew about serial killers) -- they do have motive, just a twisted one, but more importantly for these fictional portrayals, they are driven, they kill by compulsion. This is quite unlike anti-heroes like Hannibal Lecter and any number of other fictional super-serial killers who are depicted as free, unbound by society's rules and laws
(and, too often, fiction's rules of motivation and internal consistency). And this is way I again say these are actually gothic tales. The fictional serial killer is actual just a vampire, with all of the inherent romantic overtones, the too seldom lipservice to compulsion substituting for the trials of being undead. I don't think it's any coincidence that serial killers rose in popularity at the same time as Anne Rice and her followers. It must answer a need in many contemporary readers.

And, no, I do not mean to restart the thread about the overlap of horror and HB. I'm pointing out the innate differences.

Mark S

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