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October 16th, 2008 at 5:51 am

Rooting for Serial Killers: The Strange Case of Dexter


The following post is by Leonard Cassuto, professor of English at Fordham University and author of the recently published Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories:

The last chapter of my book, Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories, is about serial killers.  In a footnote toward the end,  I mention that there’s one place that serial killer novelists won’t go, and that’s the torture of children.

Real-life serial killers don’t adhere to the conventions of fiction, of course, and some of them do target kids.  (John Wayne Gacy, the Chicago sex-murderer of more than thirty young men and boys, is a famous example.)  I read some first-person accounts of child murder by serial killers while I was researching Hard-Boiled Sentimentality, and even though I encountered them mostly in abbreviated form, I found them absolutely unbearable, as painful as anything I’ve ever read.

Which brings me to Dexter, the most interesting serial killer story to come out in years.  Now a popular Showtime television series beginning its third season, Dexter is based on characters devised by novelist Jeff Lindsay, whose first book, Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004), provides the trunkline plot for the first season of the show.

The serial killer story formula is mostly pretty tired and played-out these days.  New entries occupy themselves mostly with imagining increasingly extravagant indiginities to visit upon the human body.  Not Dexter.

Dexter’s novelty arises from its point of view.  The typical serial killer story centers on the efforts of police or a detective to locate and exterminate the murderer.  (These stories almost never end with capture, because human monsters have to be killed.)  We follow along with the police, and share their goals.  Dexter, on the other hand, is narrated by the killer himself—and he makes the viewer root for him.

Sympathy for a serial killer?  It’s an apparently ludicrous notion in the worst of taste.  Sympathy means looking at the world from someone else’s view—and how can one be comfortable for even three minutes, let alone three television seasons, in the shoes of someone who freely gratifies his urge to kill other people?

Dexter solves the problem of sympathy in a number of nifty ways, the most important being that Dexter only kills other murderers.  (As a forensics expert working for the Miami Police department, he has ample access to information to locate them.)  As a sort of incidental vigilante, Dexter acts out society’s revenge fantasies and even serves the public good by capturing crooks who slip the noose.

But the story doesn’t use revenge as an easy way out.  We’re forced to view Dexter’s murders, and in that way, to participate in them.  We’re on Dexter’s shoulder while he’s doing his messy business.  We share his bloodlust, and join him in his blood fetishism.

So what redeems Dexter?  And what keeps the viewer from shutting down in disgust?  Actor Michael G. Hall (whose performance really nails Dexter) recently told Newsweek that he thinks viewers like and sympathize with the character because “he doesn’t quite understand what separates him from the rest of the world”

But that’s not it.

Dexter’s secret source of sympathy is children.  He has a special affection for kids.  “One of the few character traits that genuinely mystifies me,” he says in Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, “is my attitude toward children. . . . They are important to me.  They matter.”  It’s not just that “kids are different” and (as Dexter says in the opening episode of the television show) he has “standards” that don’t permit him to kill them.  Avoiding child victims is much more than  professional ethics for Dexter.  “I like them,” he says—and he shows it.

Dexter’s love of kids allows him to bond with their mother, whom he’s much less comfortable with at first.  He eventually becomes a loyal boyfriend and a substitute father, who not only  plays with the kids but also takes risks for them.  In short, Dexter becomes a family guy.

“The willful taking of life represents the ultimate disconnect from humanity,” Dexter confesses in his voice-over narration to the show. “It leaves you an outsider, forever looking in, searching for company to keep.”  Indeed.  That’s why Dexter describes himself as a monster.  He knows that his urge to kill separates him from regular people.

But his family identity brings him back—and the kids are the key.  If children were among Dexter’s victims, there could be no story.  Instead, they’re his saviors, because they’re the key to his entry into real life.  In the end, the kids are what allow us to root for a serial killer.

I argue in Hard-Boiled Sentimentality that American crime stories depend on the ideal of family, and that the history of this literature is the history of its changing relation to the American domestic ideal.  Hard-boiled plots work with familiar American stereotypes about family.  They sometimes push against those stereotypes, but more often the stories accept and depend on barely-updated versions of  nineteenth-century domesticity.  Such domesticity—centered on a virtuous and pious maternal ideal—is dramatized again and again in sentimental fiction of a century before, so hard-boiled fiction owes an unlikely debt to an earlier genre written mostly by women.

It’s hard to imagine a bloody narrative like Dexter as rooted in the sentimental domesticity of long ago.  But as another serial killer says to Dexter, “Do I have to remind you of the importance of family?”

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