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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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.

Yeah. She's basically Anthony Hopkins in Sharon Stone's body.

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.

But enough about Mel Gibson...

Ba-dum-BUMP! I'll be here at the Chuckle Hut all week. Be sure to tip your waitress, drive safely, and for God's sake, hold your children a little tighter tonight.
Good one!
Your profile is hilarious. (I wondered what Linkedin was about - sharing business cards online? Now I know what it really is: ferns, no mojitos.)
I think a number of people here have explained it well: the serial killer novel, with or without a profiler, is essentially an archetype-based 'beating the monster' fairytale. Of course, serial killers are less common in real life than in fiction, but so are vampires and werewolves. What's important in these tales isn't the reality of the monster but what it represents. Not a massively intelligent or original observation, I know, but serial killers in fiction are often the equivalent of vampires - they come into your house at night; they invade your body; they're driven to do it by alien 'needs'; there's a sexual element. Maybe it's just that people can't take vampires seriously anymore but, because of media hype, can suspend disbelief enough to accept the serial killer.

The profiler's an interesting profession (or used to be), but I think that's a red herring; many SK books with a different main character buy into exactly the same narrative. The victims tend to be female because that's the nature of the tale: it plays on the fear of sexual violence, or violence against somebody vulnerable and 'valuable'. Maybe, like many vampires novels, it touches on male fears of failing to protect women, or sexual indiscretion, but that might be taking it too far. More importantly, there's just the demand of tension. The books require a climax, and pitting the SK against a big, burly bloke might undermine the suspense a little - in the big, final battle against the monster, the hero needs to fight to save someone/something a little more helpless than that. Personally, I wouldn't be scared to take on Anthony Hopkins. (Brian Cox is another matter).

Is that misogynistic? Yeah, in a way. It looks more insidious than it is, though, because of the proliferation of the books, and that's not due to readers demanding "kill more women! I love it!" so much as "give me the story I like! I want an easy read!". (Or maybe "Christ, I hope this one's a bit different"). In general, I think people concerned about violence against women - ie all sensible people, feminist or otherwise - are best to save their energies for women who actually exist. There may be a deeper meaning to the SK story, or dark truths about a few of the writers who produce it, but if your aim is to find misogyny then you can find it pretty much anywhere when you try hard enough. I've been directly accused of misogyny and having issues with women before. I really had no idea.
I think you're right - it's a fairytale that works for our time. (Hey, didn't even Grendel have mommy problems?) The profiler is a hero who can imagine his way into the nasty world in order to slay the demon - but meanwhile we get to visit the nasty world, which is a lot of fun. Vampires are an interesting parallel because they're also extremely popular, but I'm guessing (ignorantly enough - I'm not versed in that subgenre) that the parallel "they live among us; we can't tell who they are" is given a different perspective. I've often thought of it being a way to imagine being different, while covering for it. Like being closeted but seeing everything that happens in the everyday world with the perspective that there's a whole 'nother culture out there, and often a hero is part of it. Or maybe I'm thinking of Eric Garcia's dinosaurs.

Anyhoo.... I'm not actually saying people who read or write these fairytales are misogynistic, but I do think whatever our dominant fairytales are tell us something about how we funnel our anxieties into narratives that reassure us. After giving us a good, pleasant scare, of course. And I think it has a particular fascination in the US because we're frankly more than a bit odd about sex, and this is one narrative where you can both enjoy it and say "oh, that's SO disgusting. Did you see that? Shocking. I wonder what he'll get up to next."
That's true about vampires as a way of "being an outsider" while still being part of ordinary life. I guess a lot of the more modern vampire novels have a lot in common with superhero narratives, but that's just a guess from the few I've read about. There's an anti-hero aspect to it. To an extent, you can see a bit of that, however bizarre it is as a concept, in serial killer novels too, starting with Lecter, and then more obviously in something like Dexter. In some horror franchises - Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and more modern stuff like Hostel and certainly Saw - the killers are anti-heros. But I was meaning more the older vampire or monster stories. I actually thought of Grendel, but the 'mommy problems' passed me by, damn it.

I wasn't meaning to imply you were saying anyone was misogynistic, by the way, but it's a common enough analysis I see being made. It just kind of annoys me whenever I see 'real-world' feminism being directly applied to the treatment of fictional characters, as it seems not too far away from, say, accusing certain scientific equations of being sexed or patriarchal. The analysis isn't necessarily built for the medium it's being applied to, and needs a bit of term-defining first. You can't make links like "lots of women are being killed in books, therefore society has problems with women", because fiction isn't necessarily being used for that function or on that level ... God, I'm boring even myself now. But I wasn't having a go at you, promise. :-)
Because publishers publish them and readers buy them. All series play to the same instinct in readers: the familiar. Thriller readers want that vicarious dip into fictional evil. Good writers manage to put more into the books than a paint-by-number rehash of Hannibal Lecter, but Lecter is what most readers are after. And Lecter-lite is what writers give them. Look at the cottage industry that grew up around "DaVinci Code." And the albino psycho was off-the-shelf in the first place.
I say this being the creator of a hero who is a pale shadow of what Chandler created. What's new in the world of murder and mayhem? Not much. We do what we can.
I won't do a serial killer because I think the thing is played out, and there is a nagging voice in my head that doesn't like women as victims, per se. The new thing is female serial killers, who have to do it backwards and in high heels.
La plus ca change...


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