Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Here a Serial Killer, There a Serial Killer

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.

(Spoiler ahead!)

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?

(Spoiler ahead!)

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.


Carrie said...

I knew there were good reasons why I don't read fictional crime :)

Leah said...

LOL I love Nancy Drew and yes, she is more interesting than a lot of reading material today. That book sounds as badly written as a soap opera.

Pat Brown said...

Yes, Leah, it was like three books rolled into one! The last 70 pages really went off in a tangent that I skimmed straight through. But I am in the minority on this view. Most people love the book! Go figure.

Rose said...

How about Harry Potter? Sorry you had a bad experience, but I won't read it now!

TigressPen said...

If you are looking for a good read in mystery/murder/suspense genre without serial aspects popping up (and without sexual nonesense slapping you on every page) then read Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware books. I suggest the first 12 or so of the series. They are phenomenal and will lead you on a trip into the mind of killers. They are not clinical. His Alex and Milo characters are a great. You may fear for their safety at times though, mainly because you get to know them on a personal level, like they are right there as a friend. Mr. Kellerman is a child psychologist.

Anonymous said...

One of your own people here on the blog has written some great mysteries, Katherine Casey. She has this Texas Ranger she writes about. Although there is a kind of scary bad guy in the first one. But her second book isn't as violent, and there wasn't any rape or anything in either one. I read both of them and really liked them.

glenn adams said...

Pat Brown, great thought provoking article.
The Shack, was given to me by a stranger. After reading halfway through the book, I decided to peek at the back pages. I almost placed it in the 'to do file'.
I am so glad that I didn't. It turned out to be one of the most inspirational books that I have ever read, mo matter the price..
Luv James Patterson Novels. Guess it's the short 2 page chapters. JP still writes his drafts with a penciland has as many as 8 books in progress at times. Heard he left his Marketing Profession(JP, coined the phrase 'Toys R Us Kid')to seek a Life partner.
◦Monica Caison; An Amazing Lady, Searcher, and Advocate for the Missing and Murdered Victims Families, held a National Conference in Wilmington, NC, with a theme ‘Expanding the Vision’.
One goal of the Conference was to feature and bring media attention to as many victims as possible.
The finally was a Cape Fear River Candlelight Vigil.
During one segment of the Vigil, when Murdered Abduction Victim; Morgan Harrington’s Mother: Gil, was reading a poem that she had written in her Memory, it was dark except for the candlelight, and I noticed movement on the river beside us. It was a snow white sailboat, that was analygous to a dove flying upriver with its lower wing tip skimming across the water..very spiritual, very moving..

Another of the Missing and Murdered Victims: Britanee Drexel’s Family and Friends were in attendance. Due to space availability, I roomed with, and became close friends with a family member of Britanee’s.

Britanee vanished while on Spring Break in Myrtle Beach, NC, one year ago. There has been breaking news in her Investigation.

The following video from Good Morning America, tells the heartbreaking story from the Mother of a Missing Person, and the Hope, she clings too:


Ann Summerville said...

I read a couple of chapters of the Lovely Bones and couldn't read any more. I was very impressed with the grapes and water at the beginning of your blog and I laughed out loud when they were replaced with a bowl of cookies - just what I would have done. I am currently reading through Deborah Crombie's series. I love cozy mysteries.
Ann Summerville
Cozy In Texas

FleaStiff said...

Although there is some dispute as to whether such things as Tartan Noir or Scandinavian Noir are actual genres or simply clever marketing ploys there is a distinct trend toward mystery fiction involving protracted discussions of torture and depravity. Although duality of good and evil in a character is hardly new to fiction, it seems investigators now seem to be alcoholics who are unrepentant thieves, adulterers and personally involved in the investigation under circumstances that in real life would mandate recusal.

Pat Brown said...

Cozy, I will have to try the Crombie series! I know my mother just loves the mystery series with the cats by Lillian Jackson Braun. I think I need to go borrow one from her!

Anonymous said...

I stumbled upon this blog in while writing a research paper about the differences between male and female serial killers. I find it interesting that you have found a similar problem with novels constantly revolving around these psychotic males sexually preying on young, unsuspecting woman. Because the media loves to indulge society with these gruesome stories, there has been a mass misunderstanding regarding the actual definition of a serial killer. Anyway, I thought you might find the book "Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer," by Michael Kelleher to be particularly interesting. Enough of my rambling, just happened to catch my attention that others have noticed the particular trend which revolves around this topic.

Wolfscratch said...

Yet, when the Hannibal Lecter of the 20th & 21st century comes along: 'Gary Michael(Mack the Knife) Hilton: 'The Forest Killer', who has been active for 47 years, you simply don't have time to pay attention..sad, so sad...


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