Wednesday, April 14, 2010
by Pat Brown
What is it about serial killers, above all other kinds of criminals, that makes everyone so fascinated with them, and why are they showing up in every piece of fiction? And why is it that most of the time the serial killers aren't even close to what exists in reality?
I know this is my field, and I specialize in serial killers, but really, aren't there any other kinds of murderers and criminals out there in the world? Remember Agatha Christie? She bumped off lots of people, and the killer had other motives and methods that didn't always involve a gruesome sexual homicide.
I have a good reason why I am feeling surly. I decided to take a day off from work and treat myself to an old-fashioned day in the spring sunshine. I settled into a lawn chair in the yard, a bottle of Perrier and a bowl of grapes alongside in the grass, and simply read. I had the Number One book in my lap, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I felt a pleasant indolence settle into my body as I started into Stieg Larsson's translated-from-Swedish prose. I picked the book for a couple of reasons: it was getting rave reviews as a piece of fine literature, and my quick scan of the first few chapters promised a journey to a small town in Scandinavia and a mystery of a sort that was hidden in a web of journalism, industrialism, and powerful family secrets ... an intrigue that wouldn't involve the typical present-day fare of "naked dead brutalized woman found in field."
It isn't that I can't read a book that includes crimes from my profession but, quite frankly, I was sick of always reading about the same kind of murder. I read The Lovely Bones a bit ago and seen the movie, and the young girl who narrates the story is raped, tortured and murdered by a serial killer right at the outset of the book. Then I read The Shack while I was on vacation in Costa Rica because I had heard it was an inspiring spiritual book. And wham, another serial killer murders someone's daughter, a little girl even younger than the one in The Lovely Bones. I wanted to throw the book into the hotel dumpster, but I carried it home in my luggage and eventually left it in the waiting room of a hospital intensive care unit. Although I didn't go for the message in the book, apparently it helped a lot of people, and I thought someone sitting there with a heavy heart for a loved one might find the book uplifting.
So I wanted a literary book. Something with more to it than another sexual psychopath killing off an unsuspecting female. I didn't want to read about rape and sadism and stranger murder. I thought I had a found an escape with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The book started out so nicely. It had a complicated assortment of players and one of them, the protagonist, found himself lured to a tiny town, with an interesting collection of residents, where a mystery of some sort was to unfold. A number of readers complained about the mundane descriptions of the food and housing and furnishings. But I rather liked those bits as they took me to another land, developing a cultural picture in my mind that evoked memories of my college days in Copenhagen. Then I got to page 92. The true goal of the puzzle was revealed: the protagonist/journalist was to find out who murdered his employer's granddaughter.
Okay, I wasn't unduly alarmed. Did she discover a family conspiracy to take over the business? Was there a Nazi connection to be discovered in the tidy town? Was there a secret love affair to be kept behind closed doors?
By page 250, my grapes were gone and so was my "innocence." The first disgusting rape scene had been badly digested. I replaced the almost empty sparkling water bottle with a Diet Pepsi. The fruit dish now had cookies on it.
(Big spoiler ahead)
I struggled onward. And then it hit. Page 375. The serial killer showed up. Actually two of them. An incredibly repulsive series of homicides with unsavory biblical connections. The best book in the world (some 24 million books if you include the other two in the trilogy) lost its allure. And then it got stupid. Whereas serial killers are almost always massive financial losers and operate in secrecy, this author turns rich businessmen into a father/son serial killer legacy and allows them to rape the daughter/sister as well to make the story all the nastier. Then ridiculous religious signatures are added to the crime scenes (that none of the detectives ever note and only a teenager and a seriously personality disordered woman pick up on) ... Okay, you have to make fiction more interesting than life. I get it, but I just found the story repulsive and downright silly. I wasted a day off and ruined my diet.
So what is it that causes fiction writers to so often include violent sexual predators as their fictional criminals? How about a good blackmailer, a con artist, a burglar, a kidnapper? How about leaving out the graphic stuff, or is that the whole point? Is that what makes the sales these days? Does a book have to include something gruesome and stomach-turning to be interesting?
I really loved the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. There was a murder in this book as well, but it was a dog, not a human. And our detective was an autistic boy. It was a curious book indeed, and I enjoyed every bit of the mystery to be uncovered.
I might just have to start rereading Nancy Drew, The Dana Girls, and The Hardy Boys. I always loved the puzzle of trying to figure out what pieces fit together and then seeing the picture come clear as the final chapter reveals the answer. Maybe I am still a child at heart but I think adult fiction could benefit by cleaning up its act and giving us a mystery that involves our minds and not just our visceral parts. Or maybe I am just getting old and crotchety. Anyone with a good recommendation of a mystery book or series without all the gore and nasty serial murders? I need another day off with a really good book to take me through it. And I need to get back on my diet.Tweet