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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Terrific topic. The public is always fascinated by evil, and serial killers, when their existence was first publicized, represented a new twist on one of humanity's oldest and most enduring themes: the bogeyman. (Bogeyperson?) In an age when we are told over and over again that most murders are committed by someone who knew the victim (and presumably, therefore, had a motive of some kind), serial killers are the personification of random evil, something unknown coming out of the night (or out of your basement) with no goal in the world except to kill you, maybe pausing long enough to cause you some pain.

Still, there might not have been a genre if the writer who first wrote a bestseller about serial killers hadn't been so damn good. I can't recall many books that scared me more than "Red Dragon." But the thing I hold Thomas Harris responsible for is the glib monster. The glib monster has spilled over, escaping the serial-killer genre to infect all kinds of crime fiction. And I, for one, am heartily sick of them.

By the way, I wrote a serial-killer novel, too, although my perp killed men. And, yes, he was glib. But I know better now. Honest, I do.
The problem may well stem from Harris's works. The problem with a Thomas Harris writing a glib, intelligent, (dare I say likeable) serial killer is that writers of less creativity and talent will see he was successful and think, "Ah, glib and intelligent serial killers sell." The fact is, one glib and intelligent serial killer became a cultural phenomenon because:
1. Thomas Harris has a talent for that.
2. Hannibal Lecter isone of the great fictional characters.
3. Anthony Hopkins made him a cultural icon. (I don't remember Harris being such a cultural icon before the movie version of "Silence of the Lambs," even though "Manhunter" came out first.)

What we're seeing is the same phenomenon as the endless (and inferior) action pictures prompted by "Die Hard," and the endless (and inferior) young adult gross out flick born of :"Animal House." Like the serial killer novel, they weren;t successful because of what they were about; they were successful because of what they were. The public goes back because they want to find that feeling again, like when they saw the first one the first time. It's like trying to recapture that first kiss. It's not going to happen.

That doesn;t mean it won't take thirty years for people to quit looking.
I think this genre resonates with so many readers universally because it represents an 'everyman' primal fear -- to be hunted, preyed upon, by another human being. Someone smart. Someone with evil intent, but you'd never recognize it if you bumped into it on your cozy residential street. He could be your neighbor, your repairman. A Ted Bundy with a smile and his arm in plaster cast. He or she can get you in your car, in your supermarket, right in your bed. He can stalk you at your parent advisory council meeting. He can get your kid on the way to the school bus ...

A terrorist, or an assassin, for example, just don't represent that universal threat. They're more abstract.

Whoever said it earlier nailed it, I believe -- the profiler-serial killer novel has evolved into a niche genre of its own. And the latest sales figures and new contracts appear to be backing that up. Readers pick up these books knowing the conventions, comforted, perhaps, by the predictability. And I don't have a problem with the conventions of any genre. But as a reader, I do find it tough to be scared by the predictability, and I SO love being scared, or thrilled, or discomfited by a novel ...
Good points here. I might also add the conjecture that we didn't have serial killer novels 50 or 100 years ago probably because (1) tastes and mores wouldn't have allowed for them; and (2) brilliant, glib murderers and actual serial killers were too remote from people's lives then. There was only Jack the Ripper that anyone had ever heard of in the way of serial killings, and there wasn't a mass media with 200 channels flooding news stories of actual crimes as well as new murder dramas and endless re-runs of CSI and Law and Order, etc., into our living rooms. With so much twisted death traipsing across our corneas every day the threat of being stalked by a serial killer ourselves is now positively palpable.
Barbara, I've written one book (Bad Thoughts) that some people have reviewed as a serial killer book (others as noir, while others still as a mix of horror and crime), and it doesn't have any of the stereotypes you mentioned. Body count is high but you might be happy to know the distribution ended up 6 women and 5 men, all of different socio-economic types. While the hero is tormented, he's not a profiler and doesn't think any deep philosophical thoughts. The villian doesn't giggle once, and never thinks about or refers to his mother (or parents), and has different motivations than what you mentioned--and most of the murders occur off camera. Anyway, that's my one sort of serial killer book, at least to some people, but I personally consider it a different type of book.
The thing is, Carole, why would pubs want to look for something fresh if the stereotype is selling so very well, if readers are lapping it up? It's money in the bank until those readers move on.

These books are still delivering something the mass market wants to read. It's sorta: 'why fix it if it aint broke yet?' And there are some first time authors tapping into this, too.

Still, I wonder when this particular story, repackaged over and over again, might run its course ... the trick might be to find the new 'everyman' fear.
I don't have any answers for you, but I see them too. The materials included do go on about how wonderful this fresh new take is. Every so often they are, but usaully , not so much.
The good old days! chuckle.
I'm many decades out of date with crime fiction and I've had a lot of fun reading the Dexter books, and have been fascinated with Harold Shecter's DEVIANT (on Ed Gein) and Anne Rule's THE STRANGER BESIDE ME (on Ted Bundy).

For me, the attraction is close to what I felt with sci-fi: a complete escape from reality. A serial killer's mind is something I would never enter into in real life and attempting to understand their thinking and how it relates to my own more normal impulses is something of an exciting puzzle to get my head around.

In terms of cookie-cutter novels in sub-genres, that's just plain old marketing. Same goes for all parts of the entertainment & fashion industries. Minimal effort + maximal exposure + something predictable with a twist = big sales for a short time. Even though it's short term thinking, it doesn't really matter as long as it makes money--when the next cookie-cutter arrives, the marketers will just switch to that.

And although I read all over the place, every so often I want to read something that isn't life changing and is just pure escapism. I guess most people do that more often than me.
Interesting - how often do you hear the phrase "enter the mind of a serial killer"? I see what you're saying. Who wants to enter the mind of some sad tosser who lost his temper and shot someone.

I liked the first Dexter book a lot - not because of the plot but because of the voice. I'll read anything if the writing captivates me enough.
Barbara, I don't know why this theme is so often repeated, but it is, and I'm tired of it too.

I just finished reading a fall novel (that got a huge advance), and the whole thing must've been sold from a deal memo: "Silence of the Lambs. Gender switch."

Nearly ten years ago, my agent was telling me she'd gotten a sizable advance for a profiler/serial killer book where the twist was that they were actually the same person...a split personality or something. Kid you not.
That's the trouble with combining "predictable" with "twist." You get some strange contortions. Sorry to say, I don't find it any less annoying from a feminist perspective to have a woman inflict the torture. I saw an ad for that book in the Times. Naturally, the female Hannibal is stunningly beautiful. I'll bet she's not named Mabel or Joan, either.

I recently read one from a Christian publisher, which struck me as strange, though I gather there is a strain of Christian fiction that revels in violence so long as the devil's behind it. It had plenty of sexual sadism, but no swearing.


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