by Jeff Lindsay
288 pages, Orion
Review by Pat Black
A few years ago I bought the first series of 24 on DVD. It took me longer to get through it than it did for the makers to write, plan, shoot and package the entire production.
I couldn’t understand why I was taking so long to watch the series. It was a while before I recognised the nature of the problem.
I was bored.
My moment of epiphany came when I noticed Jack Bauer and the boys at CTU had the same office phones as the company I work for – same ringtones, same display screens.
Admittedly, 24 has a tough job to keep all its plates spinning – such an ocean of time to play with, but within a strict framing device. But I noticed that instead of shoot-outs, car chases and torture, an awful lot of 24 revolved around office politics, of the type you hope wouldn’t happen in real-life counter-terror operations.
“I want to have a meeting with you about your attitude.”
“No problem – do you think we could take care of this terrorist threat first? Then maybe work out your issues?”
It seemed to me that 24 was written by someone who drew on experience of office work, with idiotic bosses and colleagues, allies, backstabbers, bitches and morons. That’s what 24 was really about, or at least that was a good measure its creative wellspring. Write what you know, they say.
I was reminded of this in parts of Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the first in his series about the charismatic serial killer Dexter Morgan, a blood specialist with the Miami police department.
The twist is that Dexter doesn’t kill the innocent – he satisfies his bloodlust by killing other serial killers.
In Dexter’s dealings with his colleagues, I recalled Bauer and co’s intra-office wranglings. Dexter’s boss is an idiot; there’s a bully who gives him stick; he’s got one or two friends who he brings pastries and submarine sandwiches. Even more bizarrely, Dexter’s foster sister Deborah is a detective on the vice squad, trying to break into homicide. All she does is whinge at Dexter; literally, the annoying kid sister. The murders seemed almost incidental at times.
Dexter is a puzzle. When we meet him, he’s carrying out his extra-curricular crime-fighting work, dispatching a child-killing priest. On the surface, in his day-to-day life, he’s normal – even charming. He’s fully aware that he has a few switches that have been pushed where they should have been pulled, but his sense of humour is intact. Usually this is sardonic, but sometimes he’s goofy. In the same style as the alliterative title, Dexter occasionally spits out a series of tabloid headlines, like the narrator on the 1960s Batman TV show.
He is asexual, but understands that he’s a good looking man and draws attention from women, although he is confused as to what he should do when some of them get too close for comfort. Dexter has a girlfriend, but he selects her as “cover” because she has suffered some trauma in the past at the hands of an ex, and isn’t interested in sex.
As the guy makes clear, he is a complete psychopath.
However, one part that really spiked my interest was when Dexter and his beard do get it together. There’s a suggestion that in order to turn himself on, Dexter thinks about murder. Oh yeah! I thought. But then Lindsay gets writer’s flinch, and we cut away, leaving us with an intriguing answerphone suggestion that his girlfriend was delighted with how her night went. Damn it, just as things were getting genuinely psychologically interesting!
Dexter was talent-spotted by his stepfather, a policeman, who realised the boy wasn’t like other people. He fostered Dexter’s compulsion to hunt and kill, training him to use his talent to dispatch people who “deserve to die”. This doesn’t fit in with any type of serial murderer I’ve heard of. Usually they have a sexual motive, though I’m sure amateur psychologists and true crime fans the world over might correct me on that. But I guess the story has to fit the gimmick, which is a good one: serial killer as anti-hero.
Dexter characterises his compulsion to kill as his “Dark Passenger”, referring to it in the third person, which got on my nerves. Dexter sees his bloodlust as a metaphysical thing, something almost supernatural. It took me out of the book, and reminded me of some really bad novels of the late 1980s and 1990s, when major characters were simply a study in psychoanalysis. We were too focused on how they became who they were, rather than what they said and did. This device is beyond cliché now, but it endures. “Never mind the plot; what do I mean?” This storytelling device’s main beneficiary was the psychotherapy industry, I suspect.
On top of this there were too many dream sequences, italicised phantasms where Dexter suddenly wakes up, all sweaty in his pristine sheets. I’m not a great fan of dream sequences. The ones I liked best were in An American Werewolf in London, but even those were simply a cheap trick. There are plenty of good ones, of course, but in books, they are often a way of cramming in abstract symbols to con readers into thinking the story is more complex than it is. I recognise this from my own bad fiction.
Hearing about other people’s dreams is a bit like seeing other people’s holiday photos: unless you’re naked, I’d rather you put the television on.
To the story: there’s a new kid in town – a serial killer who freezes prostitutes before chopping them up, cleanly and bloodlessly, before leaving the pieces in neat little packages for the police to find (and presumably defrost). Dexter is turned on by his nemesis’s odd MO and sees it as a challenge. He can indulge his urges as well as taking a bad guy off the streets. But the killer is aware of Dexter, and soon the hunter becomes the hunted, as you probably expected.
A lot of it didn’t wash. LaGuerta, the police chief, and one or two of her underlings are almost pathologically thick. Please god, there are no actual police as vacuous as this in charge of major crime investigations. They ignore Dexter’s perfectly reasonable suggestions in order to pursue lines of inquiry which made no sense whatsoever. It was reminiscent of horror films when a character decides to investigate a strange noise in the toolshed.
Also, Dexter’s sister Deborah was a joke – blundering into crime scenes in her vice squad disguise, picking fights with the wrong people, saying and doing the wrong thing. It seemed more soap opera than thriller.
But at night, when Dexter creeps through the Miami streets, the novel becomes a different beast. We’re complicit in his cunning. There’s never a doubt raised in this book over our support for its hero.
Lindsay does a fine job of maintaining the suspense in both the Jekyll and Hyde parts, following the police procedural aspect in tandem with Dexter’s midnight ramblings. The morality is wonky, though. The novel is first-person from its hero’s point of view, so there is some mitigation. Hey, I’m a freak, Dexter tells us. What did you expect? I am not normal. I am not even human. I don’t do what you do, act how you act. Take a big pinch of salt.
No problems there. But the iceman killer’s victims weren’t even referred to as people. There were no relatives, no names, even; they were reduced to constituent parts, a puzzle to be assembled. The police, having seen it all before, simply label the bits and carry on with their jobs. There was no sense of outrage.
To Dexter, it’s simply a game he plays to win. He doesn’t care much about whether his victims are ever exposed for their crimes. In the case of the priest he slaughters in the early chapters, we never find out if the previous victims Dexter managed to dig up are given a decent burial.
This brings us back to the top, when I realised what this novel was unconsciously saying.
The 24 writers may have been telling us that they hated their day jobs. Dexter’s dark heart reveals to us that it’s okay to murder people if you’re white, middle class and handsome.
If he was a van driver or a drifter or a deviant in a basement, you wouldn’t take to him. But he’s clean-cut, he dresses well, he looks after his sister. He’s got the lifestyle, the exciting job, and worse – the moral imperative.
Most superhero stories are about geeks getting bigger and stronger and overcoming bullies. Think Charles Atlas adverts, and flex. We all respond to this on some level, whether you’re a wannabe alpha male gripping your thighs during cage fighting bouts on cable, or a pimply nerd vacuum-packing her comics. Everyone has experienced some form of bullying, so it’s natural for us to take refuge in stories about people who strike back. Dexter is no different to a comic book crime-fighter. He’s Batman’s brother, a masked avenger, contravening society’s rules to administer “true” justice and keep the innocent safe. The divided man, the hero in disguise, invested with a unique ability and granted authority enjoyed by no-one else.
I sometimes think Thomas Harris has a lot to answer for. I remember reading Hannibal with initial consternation. Then my admiration grew for its author’s sheer nerve in turning Hannibal Lecter into a romantic hero, concluding a grim trilogy of psychopaths, dark obsessions and trauma with a comedy. Perhaps Harris was completing a metamorphosis, but it’s more likely he was taking the piss. Even Ridley Scott seemed baffled by that story, misfiring badly with his movie adaptation. It was utterly deranged, an inspired way to end the story. Not everyone gets the joke.