The Psychopathic Serial Killer
There have been some truly memorable books that have featured this kind of killer. Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, for instance, feature Dr. Hannibal Lecter. He’s a brilliant psychiatrist with a fascinating personality and wits to match just about anyone. He’s also a vicious killer. He makes no apologies, really, for the murders he’s committed and is, to put it mildly, a very dangerous person. And yet, he’s not a hackneyed character. He’s interesting. He’s even philosophical.
The killer in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is also an interesting person, and not what you would call clichéd. In that novel, Lou Ford is the deputy sheriff of Central City, Texas. He’s got the reputation of being a nice and hardworking, if somewhat dull, person. Then, Joyce Lakeland, a local prostitute, is brutally beaten. While Ford’s investigating that crime, there’s a murder. As Ford is involved with these crimes, we learn that he’s hiding a terrible side of himself that he calls “the sickness.” Lou Ford is a complex character and that’s part of the interest in this novel.
Is it possible to write a truly gripping novel about a psychopathic serial killer? Yes. There are plenty of examples of this kind of character beyond the two I’ve mentioned here. But it’s difficult to do well and with this kind of story, it’s easy to let the plot disintegrate into gratuitous gore.
The “Damsel in Distress”
Suspense adds much to a crime fiction novel and when a character’s in danger, this can ratchet up the pace and interest level. Since women are more likely than men to be raped and are often more attractive targets for carjackings, muggings and so on, a scene in which a woman, say, is taken hostage or otherwise becomes a victim makes some sense. On the other hand, characters in stories with this sort of theme can quickly become stereotyped. Today’s women may still be physically vulnerable in some ways; however, most crime fiction fans want their female characters to show some resilience and mettle. It isn’t necessary for a female character to be unfeminine for her to also be smart, resourceful and capable.
There are some solid examples in crime fiction of “damsel in distress” plots that work. Peter Robinson’s Gallows View focuses on this theme. In that novel, DI Alan Banks and his Eastvale team investigate a series of break-ins, a murder and a spate of voyeurism. In an attempt to find out who the peeper is before those episodes escalate into something worse, Banks works with psychologist Dr. Jenny Fuller to create a profile of the kind of person who indulges in voyeurism. At a critical point in the novel, Fuller is taken hostage. Like anyone in that situation, she’s terrified. But she doesn’t react by wringing her hands and collapsing. She uses her wits and her skills as a psychologist to stay as safe as she can.
That’s also the case with P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson. She’s an FBI profiler whose specialty is “getting into the heads” of killers. She’s helped by psychic visions that give her glimpses into the minds of the people she’s tracking. In novels such as Body Count and Fan Mail, she gets herself into real physical danger. And yet, she doesn’t dissolve into helplessness. She’s a smart, quick-witted and capable person who doesn’t sit around and wait for a hero to come and save her. At the same time, she’s not oblivious to the danger she’s in. She feels as vulnerable and frightened as anyone might under the same circumstances.
The Tormented Detective
Crime fiction fans want their sleuths to have some personal history – some backstory. And it can add to a character if she or he has some personal scars. After all, we all have them, so it makes a character more human to have some tragedy in his or her life. Crime fiction fans also want their sleuths to be realistic. It’s realistic that a detective would get so involved with the job that it’s hard to juggle work and home life. It’s also easy to believe that the stress of being a detective can put a lot of strain on a marriage or partnership. That said, though, a sleuth who wallows in personal pain or is obsessed with his or her scars can become clichéd.
Of course there are plenty of very well-drawn and beloved fictional detectives who have a lot of personal pain. Take, for instance, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. His wife Mona left him, he’s got a very troubled relationship with his daughter Linda, and he doesn’t take care of his health. He’s got several scars and we see them. But at the same time, he doesn’t wallow in them. He does his job and devotes himself to doing the best he can.
The same is true of Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. She’s certainly got her share of personal scars. She grew up virtually without a mother, she fled from a terribly abusive relationship and she lost her only child. And yet, she doesn’t let those events define her. She makes the best of life and although she mourns her losses as anyone would, she isn’t self-indulgent about it.
It’s not easy to balance the need for a well-rounded sleuth who’s had a realistic share of life’s troubles with the need to avoid the stereotype of the “tormented detective.” But when it works, the result is a really memorable sleuth.
The Mounting Body Count
A lot of crime fiction involves murder. In fact, some crime fiction readers really don’t enjoy a story unless at least one person dies. And it’s realistic to believe that someone who’s killed could kill again. If you add to that the mounting suspense as first one murder, then another, and then another are discovered, it’s easy to see why some books fall into the “mounting body count” trap. But when too many people end up dead for a reason that doesn’t advance the plot, that plot becomes shopworn.
Of course, it’s possible to have several people die without the plot losing its “punch.” In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for instance, there is a “mounting body count” theme. Ten people receive invitations to Indian Island off the Devon coast. For different reasons, they all accept the invitation and travel to the island. On the night of their arrival, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. During the night, someone else dies. And then other guests begin to die. The survivors have to find out which of them is the killer while at the same time staying alive themselves. Although this plot certainly focuses on more and more people dying, it’s not stereotyped.
There are also several well-written medical thrillers by writers such as Michael Palmer in which a number of people die. In plots like that, the sleuth races against the proverbial clock to figure out who or what is killing the victims. When those plots are written in a believable way, they can be utterly absorbing.
If a number of murders really advance the plot, a high body count can be engaging. Otherwise, the plot can fall apart.
These are just a few examples of themes that have arguably been overdone. What do you think? Which themes do you think have been overdone? If you're not sure, complete this sentence and you'll know: "I am so sick of reading about__________."