Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Random Thoughts on Serial Killer Novels

The recent announcement of a new Hannibal Lecter novel got me thinking about this curious corner of the crime fiction genre.

Generally speaking, I like serial killer novels. Pattern killers make for effective villains, as they are horribly creepy, violent and over-the-top. I do have some hesitation about these books, though, for a couple of reasons.

  • There are too many of them. Or, more precisely, there are too many lousy ones. There is always room for another good book, regardless of the subject, but this is definitely an area in which authors are strongly urged to put their own spin on things.

  • I'm skeptical of this new trend towards "serial killer as hero" books. (And, really, that's the direction Thomas Harris has been heading in for a while now.) I'm already tired of this backwoods of the genre. I did like Darkly Dreaming Dexter (see my review), but enough already. Serial killers are bad guys and should be treated as such.

  • Too many of these books, particularly the bad ones, are overly exploitive. Victims should be treated with respect and killers should not. (Again, everyone loves Hannibal Lecter, but most of us aren't Thomas Harris.) Nothing turns my stomach quicker than a book that uses its violence merely to titillate. Even in the realm of fiction, we're still talking about some pretty awful things.

  • Too many serial killers are too damn smart and talented. The way these characters are becoming in many books, the killer is practically Batman. Can't we ever have a killer who's more realistic: not a genius, just an evil dirtbag?

  • Another road block that's inherent in this subgenre, although not really a problem with me, is that a lot of readers are turned off by the buckets of blood, gore, etc. (Although this can be a marketing plus for other readers; c.f. Karin Slaughter.) More authors would be advised to consider taking this in the other direction -- shock and scare, but don't revolt.

  • The serial killer novel will likely be with us as long as the crime fiction genre is -- too many readers have a fascination with these books to think otherwise.

    That doesn't mean, though, that they can't be good books, with interesting, fresh plots and believable characters. I'm not really expecting that from the new Thomas Harris book...but I have to confess to be looking forward to it all the same.