It's weird. I review books, so I get packages every few weeks. I'm always excited to get those packages because I get to read some really fine books. But they often include The Book. The same book. I get it about six times a year.

The covers are slightly different. The author's name and the book title are changed. The blurbs on the back are not word-for-word identical, though pretty close. The publicity material tells me it's something new and fresh - again. But it isn't. It's the same damned book. "Serial killer with a twist" is, apparently, a cocktail with a garnish. These are the ingredients:

--A tormented hero who profiles evil people for a living, traveling from one scene of carnage to another and thinking deep philosophical thoughts about good and evil in between.

--A serial killer who gets his own chapters so we can enjoy seeing him enjoy himself as he stalks and tortures women. The serial killer is highly intelligent and giggles a lot. He also has mannerisms that homophobic people attribute to gay men. He thinks about his mommy several times during the course of the book. Mommy (usually fat, often a prostitute) either got bad news or was bad news, and sex is always involved. It's not an important part of the story, but we get just enough to know it's really her fault.

--Victims who are young, middle-class women, white and attractive - not members of minorities, fat, or employed in illegal if time-honored professions. They are often named Kimberly or Ashley. They are never named Mabel or Joan. If the tormented profiler is male, his wife, girlfriend, or daughter will become a target of the serial killer. If the tormented profiler is a woman, she or her daughter will become a target of the serial killer. The book will end with a face-to-face showdown between the tormented profiler and the giggling killer. Serve with a twist - usually a new way to torture women and/or taunt police. But make sure readers get exactly what they ordered.

What is going on, here? Why is that stories about profilers and serial killers who torture women have become our master narrative, a folk tale that can be retold endless times?

In the early 1980s the FBI made the rise of serial homicide a cause that led to new legislation and funding, even though it turned out they'd made a ludicrous error when they declared all unknown-circumstances homicides as the work of serial killers (making a category of homicides jump from 1% to 25% overnight). Hey, when Congress curtailed their powers after COINTLPRO was exposed, they had to do something to get them back; once they got the support they wanted, they had the grace to say "whoops! We goofed. Sorry."

But the numbers don't matter. It was the story behind them that people embraced. Somehow, by popularizing the threat of the serial killer and the story-telling abilities of the profiler, they tapped into a master narrative that remains incredibly popular. Why has this become the story so many people want to read, again and again?

It's not just because Silence of the Lambs worked, so publishers are in a hurry for knock-offs. That book was published 20 years ago. These aren't knock-offs, they've taken on a life of their own as a distinguishable cultural theme. Somehow, stories about tortured women and the characters who fight over them are a preferred way to engage questions of good and evil. And there's no risk, because we know exactly how the story will end. Each time. (Though if you think about it, there are a lot of dead women involved - collateral damage in the pursuit of entertainment.)

What's going on, here? Why has this been the story for the past twenty years?

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I think serial killer stories are enticing to newer authors because every time they don't know what to do or how to develop tension they just drop a body. Now, I'm not knocking all serial killer books. There are some I've really enjoyed. (And it is possible to write about serial killers without following the cliches you've noted, and when people do that it's incredibly refreshing.) But it can be a lazy way of maintaining the suspense in a story. Personally, I've never read a Patricia Cornwell and have no burning interest in the books.

If anyone wants a lesson in buiding real tension I suggest Carol Anne Davis's Sob Story, or for dealing with a serial killer of sorts without the standard approach read Steve Mosby's The 50/50 Killer.
I also do reviews and I agree completely with your comment. I could also add the current proliferation of evil conspiracies that threaten our very existence as a nation and requre - no, demand! - extraordinary powers be exercised by the government to protect us is currently creating its own genre of The Book.
Wait, wasn't that the plot for today's briefing by the DoJ? Seriously - I hope that trend doesn't last long. I already have too many dents in my walls. I couldn't bring myself to watch 24 because I don't believe there's any moral justification for the state to conduct torture, and it made me angry to be asked to suspend my moral outrage just for fun. On the other hand, I quite liked The Shield - but it didn't try to justify police corruption and brutality.
I think to some extent, a lot of agents and publishers are very much like generals - they tend to fight the last war. It's got to be a lot harder to try and sell something new and fresh and different, so they fall back on what has already worked, at least once, in the hope it will work again.
I agree with both you and with Sandra that it's tempting for writers and publishing professionals to keep doing what has worked before. What puzzles me is - why does it work for readers? They aren't reading these predictable stories because they are being forced on them; they actually want to read them (over and over). True, some of the books I get for review are not going to find a vast audience but there are enough that do and it makes me scratch my head.

I know many readers (particularly ones who don't read a lot, want to pick up a book that they know they'll like) are not bothered by reading books that are predictable. But that said, why do they so relish books about multiple women victims and people in two professions that, in real life, are have extremely limited job opportunities: profilers and serial killers. As a feminist, I keep thinking there's something going on with that storyline being so popular. I just can't figure out what it is.
I don't have answers for you. Perhaps it's because of a laziness factor. I mean, look at TV. CSI is popular, so we have CSI Miami and CSI NY and every cop show out there is beefing up the forensic aspect of the investigations. Much like X Files gave birth to Outer Limits (I think that was the show). It's a common issue in entertainment.

As for the butchering women storylines, I suppose the perception is that most murder victims are women. Look at serial killers. We have the accused Pickton on trial in Canada now, and it's believed he killed something like 48 or 49 women. Bundy killed women. The Hillside Stranglers killed women. The Boston Strangler killed women. And we don't seem to talk nearly as much about the relative few who killed men.

Now, arguments could be made on all sides of the coin. Are writers making a statement against violence against women? Is it that people are trying to reflect reality and that the majority of serial killers kill women? Is it, again, lazy writing because people are more protective of women and children. (We still do have that idea that it's wrong for women to go to war - when our first female soldier was killed in Afghanistan it was hyped excessively. You'd think a woman had never died in uniform before. Blame the media for making it a big deal and highlighting the fact that we say 'equal' but don't mean it.)

Of course, with some, it might be because they have issues with women and are working out their angst in their writing, I suppose... But I don't think that's actually the case with the majority of the books. Eric is right - when I was at Harrogate in 2005 on the getting published panel what was said was that publishers didn't want something completely original, they wanted something that had a bridge between what's known and what's a bit different. So, if what's selling is serial killer books you can make yours original by having your investigator be... a former nun, but you can't have the former nun and the murder victims be men. That's the standard line of advice I've heard over the past few years, anyway.

I think readers want to know they'll enjoy a book when they start it, so they go back to what they've enjoyed before. I never pick up a book thinking I want to dislike it. So, if something works for a person they'll want more of the same. I look at my TV habits (meagre as they are) and it's cop shows. I watch little else. I guess to some extent, we're creatures of habit. Mainly, I think publishers know how to market what's already selling. It's easy, so they're more easily persuaded to take it on. I've definitely heard that cited as a reason for rejecting some material - like it, but don't know how to sell it.
Yes - so far as one can tell from media accounts, serial killers are more likely to kill women than men. But the best estimates for the number of homicides in the US that can be attributed to serial killers is around 1%. I'm too lazy to look up the Bureau of Justice Statistics' victim reports, but if I remember correctly, the safest demographic if you want to avoid being murdered is to be a woman between the ages of 18 and 24. The most dangerous years for women is under age 3, and the perpetrators in those homicides are mostly parents and other household members. (Boys are equally likely to be murdered when they're infants, but the most dangerous age for them is ... you guessed it, between 18 and 24.)

I don't expect popular culture to reflect reality; I expect it to reveal something about who we are and what we fear and what satisfies our anxieties. For some reason we like being afraid of serial killers who prey on young women.

I think you're right, readers will often choose books they can predict will be satisfying, so formulaic serial killer books can fit the bill. Just as the Western did something for people (at least in the US) a few decades ago, now crime is where we find our satisfying conflicts. And serial killers are peculiarly able to take our anxiety and turn it into something pleasurable.
First, I think sometimes we want the predictable. Not bashing romance novels, but when you pick one up you know the hero and heroine are going to end up together. I think books that we already know the end to are safe. This is a scary world.

Oh and for the record X-Files did not spawn Outer Limits. It is a remake of a fantastic show from the 70's.
But don't you think the reason there was an appetite for the remake had to do with the success of X-Files? It always seems something does well, and everyone copies.

I went to some readings last year and when they introduced the one I muttered, "Oh, another Templar book. Yippee." Except I muttered it a bit loudly... But just this week I was going through the ARC copy offers and sure enough, another religious thriller, where great hidden truths of the last 2000 years are being revealed. Ho hum yawn. Time for the next trend, please. But then, I happen to have a reviewer who loves the stuff and is happy to read it. So he'll read it and probably love it.

I completely agree about romance novels.
You nailed my question, Jon. Why are women the exclusive grist for this particular entertainment mill? The difference with deSade is that he truly is disturbing. He challenged boundaries of church and gender and everything else and invented every shocking activity that porn has tried to jolt us with since. (I had to read one of his books for a graduate seminar. I don't ever want to do it again.) What we have now is misogynistic and tame. Like a carnival ride - adrenaline without risk.

Other things could be predictable, comforting, formulaic - but this is the one that seems to have stuck around the longest. I think (I hope!!) we'll run through Templars and Vatican conspiracies quite soon, if we haven't already. Why has this story been so popular for twenty years?
Now at first I thought someone kept sending the same novel. Writers have been known to change their names to get another chance at a contract. Then I thought she's writing about Val McDermid's profiler novels. Mind you, they are pretty tolerable. Then I realized that we are really talking about a whole slew of probably badly written novels of the same type.
Yes, Jon is right. It is a sub-genre. Started out interesting and got to be formula. Same as Cornwell spawning imitators and Hillerman, and any number of other people.
The real question is not why do people write them and publishers buy them. The real problem is reader taste.
We now get more people with limited education in the liberal arts who have been spoiled by television and reject anything that requires thought and imagination. Especially the latter.
You know what the most frequent complaint about my novels is: All those Japanese names!
Some of the books that use this masterplot are quite well written. Some of them are competently written. Many of them are awful. I'm not saying "all books that include a serial killer are rubbish." (True confessions: I wrote one myself. What was I thinking? But there's no profiler and no giggler.) No - when I say "it's the same book" I mean books by various authors that may be quite readable and even clever, but that adhere to a profiler/clever monster/multiple tortured women formula - and find happy readers who want that.

What in our society (apart, perhaps, from bad taste and/or short attention spans) makes that story so compelling? You can speculate why noir fiction or westerns found a particular audience at a particular time. But I'm stumped with this one.

I really liked Jess Walter's first work of crime fiction, Over Tumbled Graves. It explores this topic and does it in wonderful prose.


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