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Thomas Harris has a lot to answer for. Before he created Hannibal Lecter, the mere idea of a multiple murderer was enough to scare people into locking their doors and avoiding anyone remotely suspicious. Seemingly ordinary, many serial killers lived "normal" lives with wives and children, masking monstrous deeds with a placid veneer. Novelists Dorothy B. Hughes, Jim Thompson and Robert Bloch evoked these chilling figures to outstanding effect, respectively, in "In a Lonely Place" (1947), "The Killer Inside Me" (1952) and "Psycho" (1959).
However, were it not for Lecter and his eventual transformation from the genuinely frightening supporting player of "Red Dragon" (1981) to the faux-suave "hero" of "Hannibal" (1999), there would be no serial killer subgenre as we know it. In 1989 -- just a year after the publication of cultural phenomenon-to-be "The Silence of the Lambs" -- Marilyn Stasio pinpointed the subgenre's primary problem in a New York Times Book Review piece on the "Year of the Serial Killer": "Once smitten by their own creations, writers can become so indulgent of a crafty killer's savage ways that they even lose interest in his victims. These diminished characters, most of them women and all brutally dehumanized by their killers, are too easily reduced to their anatomical parts and filed away by number by authors enamored of their creepy killers."
Stasio was right, of course; these days, serial killers are portrayed less as ordinary people with escalating murderous impulses than as larger-than-life, almost mythic beasts. Bret Easton Ellis' Patrick Bateman, Patricia Cornwell's Temple Gault, James Ellroy's Martin Plunkett and, most recently, Jeff Lindsay's Dexter Morgan are just a few fictional killers who have attained near-heroic status among readers. Lindsay's series, recently continued with "Dexter in the Dark" (Doubleday: 302 pp., $23.95), has even inspired a Showtime series, the ads for which herald "the return of America's favorite serial killer." After all, Dexter may be a prolific killer, but, to adapt a phrase from Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in "True Lies," his mostly nameless victims "were all bad."
The disconnect between the superintelligent psychopaths of fiction and their more mundane real-life counterparts likely has widespread origins, including the desire of readers for a more heightened experience and the generalized desensitization of society toward violence and criminal acts. But whatever the reason, every year since 1989 has been the "Year of the Serial Killer" -- and 2007 is no exception.
Murderess Gretchen Lowell may not be the official heroine of Chelsea Cain's "Heartsick" (St. Martin's Minotaur: 326 pp., $23.95) -- that honor goes to pink-haired Portland, Ore., journalist Susan Ward -- but the imprisoned killer is clearly the glue that holds the novel's converging plots together. With 200 kills to her credit and a psychologist's gift for manipulation, this white-blond piercing beauty is a folk hero indebted to a certain Dr. Lecter. And if Harris only cottoned to the romantic possibilities of Lecter and FBI analyst Clarice Starling, Cain creates a corrosive chemistry between Gretchen and Archie Sheridan, the police detective who was almost her final victim. Why else would Archie, still saddled two years later with the physical and emotional scars of a 10-day torture session in Gretchen's dungeon of horrors, make weekly visits to the woman he dubs "my psychopath" [p.308] -- marriage, children and job be damned?
Cain, a columnist for the Oregonian in Portland, doesn't answer that question in full -- otherwise, "Heartsick" would be a one-off, not the first in a series -- but she does render Gretchen and Archie's mind games with enough relish that the duo become page-turning examples of a disturbing tango in action. Susan, meanwhile, does her best to keep up on the psychologically damaged front, but faced with Gretchen's potent brand of psychopathology, it's hardly a contest as to who the book's heroine really is.
Like Gretchen, Arthur Blume has been incarcerated for life for multiple murder, but "An Absolute Gentleman" (Counterpoint: 288 pp., $14 paper), the first novel from noted short story writer R.M. Kinder, is more concerned with the psychological underpinnings of its protagonist than with creating over-the-top entertainment. "We may be spectacular in our dreams, but our doings diminish us," remarks Blume, who is "a boring man, an observer," capable of "great tenderness" toward girlfriend Grace, and hardly a star (he's a failed novelist and English professor in a small Missouri town). His monstrous nature lies in the astonishing justifications he makes for killing, and these seamless delusions are proof of Kinder's ability to juxtapose the rational and the irrational.
Blume is matter-of-fact in both the recitation of his crimes and his even more perfunctory account of life leading up to arrest. But this just draws us in more deeply, making his narration of murder splintered and distinct. From an active description of how he "went into the house and surprised [a victim] in the kitchen," he switches to the passive for the actual crime: "She got hit in the head with a skillet. . . . She was hit many times." The change seems subtle, but it illuminates Blume's total lack of remorse for his crimes in a way that pages of meandering motivation never could. He may ask, "How could I be evil and not know it, since I recognize it when I see it?" But Kinder's precision and care here (borne out of the author's encounters with real-life multiple killer Robert Weeks) brings the lie of that question to the reader with quiet brilliance.
Sarah Weinman's column appears monthly. She blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com