Friday, September 05, 2008

Serial Killer Fiction

I've been taking in quite a bit of serial-killer related fiction lately. I'm not sure why. Well, no, I do know why. Because I've enjoyed American Psycho for a few years and finally decided to go back and read Bret Easton Ellis' novel and because, while the Instant Viewing service from Netflix isn't terrific with its variety, it has managed to turn me on to a few shows I wouldn't have watched otherwise, Dexter being the most relevant for this post.

For some reason, I'd been avoiding it, but after watching it, the idea of a serial killer who follows a strict code caught me as "really damned interesting". For a while, the wikipedia page for the Dexter Morgan character included what his alignment would have been if he were a Dungeons and Dragons character, which I found kind of interesting because even though I've never played D&D, I like the idea that two words can plot you in a little matrix that describes your motivations and how you treat others. But then there was some disagreement over whether he was Lawful Neutral or Lawful Evil, and eventually someone realized that we probably don't need to apply fantasy gaming systems to every character in all fiction, and it's since been removed. Either way, I became a big fan of the show, have since watched both seasons that have been released so far and eagerly await the start of the third season (which is surprising, as I don't have cable, but damn it, I'll figure out some way to watch it.)

For the same reasons as I picked up Ellis' American Psycho, mostly wanting to see how the series compared to the source material, I went out and bought the first two of the novels that inspired Dexter. I should note a few things first, though. I don't like doing literary reviews, mostly because I don't think I'm a very good writer, I don't think I read enough and, after all, who the hell am I? Second is that I realize that they're trying to draw in people exactly like me, who have seen the story in one medium and want to find out what the original is like, but I'm really not a big fan of plastering stills from the show on the cover of the book. Just no. But getting back to it, I went out and bought Darkly Dreaming Dexter and Dearly Devoted Dexter.

I'd recommend against that. For one, I could never quite escape the reality that I was reading a crime novel. Not that that's a bad thing, but there are times when the over-the-top mystery-crime-ness of it became off-putting. Lots of cliches, and a few too many points where I noticed that the writer was trying to be witty. Which is fine, but I prefer a little more subtlety in my serial-killer-as-antihero crime novels. The cops all talk like crime-novel cops and the second book seems to have lost a bit of the charm present in the first. But that's fine. Some people are down with that, and I'm not even necessarily knocking it as writing technique.

The bit that actually bothered me was something that I had to reflect on a bit. It seems to me that the books go in a far less interesting direction than the series, but I have no way of knowing whether that's just an artifact of the fact that I saw the series before I read the books. Certain characters living or dying or not being exactly as I remember them from their portrayal on the Showtime series is absolutely fine. The books are, after all, the source material, and though I think some of the characters are a bit more deeply explored on the show than in the books, that's fine. Some decisions, though, it just seems a bit hard for me to understand.

Massive spoilers ahead. Only continue reading if you've seen the series, read the books, or don't care.

Although if you don't care, you should be doing something else.

The first series and first book end with the revelation that Dexter's brother is alive and is also a serial killer who happens to have been dating Dexter's adoptive sister, and a final confrontation occurs between Dexter and the brother. In the series, the sister is unconscious for this confrontation, and it ends with Dexter chasing off his brother and later killing him, as he believes he will never stop attacking his sister, who he claims he's fond of at the same time he claims that he can feel no emotion. In the novel, the sister is awake, Dexter very nearly kills her himself, and then helps his brother escape, despite the fact that he's just killed a police officer.

The first scenario is more interesting, to me. The internal conflict the character suffers from knowing that he has a living relative who shares his same mental illness, but knowing that preserving his current lifestyle means forever cutting that contact off (literally, in this case) drives the ending. Having Dexter nearly kill Deborah removes another dramatic aspect of the television ending, that though it's true that Dexter and his brother are both serial-killers, Dexter is somehow elevated above that by his adherence to a strict code, while the brother kills without reason, merely to satisfy a blood-lust. Dexter's adherence to this code and refusal to kill innocents is what allows the reader/viewer to identify with him. It's not entirely that he's charming, it's that his claims of being a hollow monster come off as not quite true. One feels, in the series and the book up until that point, that he's lying to himself, claiming more emotional deadness than he's actually saddled with. Furthermore, Deborah's consciousness plays a very important role. In the series, she is unconscious, never learns her adopted brother is a serial-killer and hence doesn't have to change the way she acts towards him. It sets up a huge arc for the second season; the question of what would happen to the friends and family who depend upon Dexter if his murders were ever linked to him. In the novel, she realizes he's a serial killer, but doubles up on the "gruff cop" act and inexplicably refuses to turn her brother in, despite knowing that he's responsible for 40+ murders. Their chemistry is essentially destroyed, and it's implied that it's only because he's her brother (by adoption) that he's not been turned in, which is made further unlikely when she freaks out and threatens to turn a visiting federal agent in for buying methamphetamine in an effort to confirm the presence of a meth lab. She claims that she "took an oath to stop this kind of shit" and threatens to arrest him. Yet we're to believe she just sort of grudgingly accepts that Dexter's a mass murderer, no matter what his reasons for killing are? It's unreasonable and, for me, destroys a bit of the illusion. It just seems like a case in which the less interesting choice was made.

But, then, what do I know, and I'm probably being influenced by the fact that the first thing one sees is what one tends to feel a connection to.

Only one final complaint. Things that sound strange stick out to me. I don't like reading typos in a book I've paid money for (and there aren't any, so far, in either of these) but confused metaphors also kind of stick out to me. Shortly before writing this post, I read a passage in which an ER doctor answers a question about whether a patients blood contained any drugs with "Traces, hell. This guy's blood is a cocktail sauce."

Leaving aside the bit where, I guess, he could be referring to the fact that cocktail sauce is made of a variety of ingredients, it seems like a bit of a stretch to connect the phrase "drug cocktail", referring to a solution of a variety of drugs similar to the way a cocktail contains a variety of liquors, with the patient's blood. It just. No. It makes me think of shrimp, not so much with how many drugs are in the guy's system. Nitpicky, sure. But I'm writing a whiny, irrelevant review, and I'll put whatever I want in here.

1 comment:

Luke said...

Funny, I had pretty much the same experience with the book. I saw the show first, and then picked up Darkly Dreaming Dexter just to see how the source compared to the adaptation.

I decided that I really preferred the show. It simply took the story in more interesting directions. Not to mention the fact it really fleshed out all the minor characters. It made his sister into a much more interesting character.

I think you are right, that the series makes Dexter much more human than he gives himself credit for. This is mostly accomplished via his relationship with his sister, his girlfriend Rita and her kids. He actually does care about them deeply.