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?