Why Do So Many Authors Write About Serial Killers…Badly?


Okay, so a serial killer is an easy target for a writer. I get that. Even badly done, a few descriptions of a twisted monster torturing and murdering the innocent, coupled with a bigger than life hero chasing him down does sell books. Among readers, James Patterson (among others) has become a household word by doing just that.

Fine. It’s a slam dunk, it makes a bunch of authors pretty good livings, and so on and so forth. Perhaps it doesn’t really take much pondering to understand why they do it, the sellouts…but do the fiction writers all have to be so creepy-bad at plot management? It’s next to impossible to find one who does it right.

The true story folks are of course another matter entirely. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen, The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World’s Most Terrifying Murderers, by Harold Schecter…these are all well done, factual reporting on specific real life serial killers, some of them going back to ancient Rome.

But we were talking fiction.

Wait. Let’s get back to real life stuff for a moment. It’s not always the fiction writers who don’t think before they express themselves.

Example: A couple of years ago, as reported by Diane Diamond at Noozhawk.com, the police wanted help rounding up a bad guy. The LA Times ran an article, from which Diamond quoted an excerpt. The Times put it this way:

“Police are asking for the public’s help in identifying what they call a ‘serious, dangerous serial killer operating in Orange County….”

Uh-huh. And, uh, are there serial killers out there who are lighthearted rather than serious, who could be considered warm fluffy bunnies rather than dangerous? It does make one wonder, the way some folks string words together.

“John, I just happened to see the BSK, the Backyard Serial Killer, over at the neighbor’s. It looked like a lot of body parts lying around, and I’m pretty sure the wading pool was full of blood. Shall I dial 911?”

“What? Oh, no, Carol, no need for that. According to the police, the BSK is one of the non-dangerous serial killers. They haven’t asked for our help in the Times or on TV or anything, so just let them do their job, okay?”

“All right, honey. That’s a relief. American Idol is on, and I was afraid I might miss the vote-off.”

All right, then. Now we can get back to discussing the fiction writers.

Question: What is the single most frustrating thing about reading serial killer stories by authors both male and female who otherwise do great work?

Answer: Lack of believability.

Having a villain who’s managed to fool the world at large about the evil lurking behind his public façade is believable because real serial killers have managed it repeatedly. Having a character, either hero or villain, who pulls off the impossible (or at least highly implausible) on a regular basis is not believable.

Far too many fictional villains end up (a) knowing more about their law enforcement pursuers than they could possibly know and also (b) bringing harm or threat of harm to those on their trail, either directly or by going after the good guys’ and gals’ loved ones.

I call B.S.

It’s remotely possible that some killer, sometime, somewhere, has managed to turn the tables, to hunt his own hunters with relish (and maybe a side of mustard)–but for the most part, that never happens.

Then there are the stupid moves some writers have their heroes do. A great example of that is in the book that broke the camel’s back and inspired this post, A Stranger’s Game, by Joan Johnston. Not as well known as a James Patterson, Johnston is nonetheless a commercially successful writer, one of those who combine romance and thriller in the same manuscript. She’s also quite good, good enough that her characters do come to life with plenty of sizzle.

But what she has Breed Grayhawk do in Chapter 33 is ridiculous. Grayhawk, as depicted to that point in the story, would never be that stupid. He’s an FBI agent on the run because his boss, Vince (the serial killer) has a bunch of his peers convinced it’s Breed who’s the bad guy. There’s a manhunt on for him and the heroine. Okay, so Grayhawk sneaks back into his own place (understandable in context) to use his own computer (no way) to access various FBI databases, digging for information on dozens of killings.

Truly, any reader with more than sawdust between his or her ears would have to gag on that one. We’ve got an evil top agent out to get our guy, right? One of the first things he’d do is have someone start monitoring Grayhawk’s computer.

It was almost but not quite enough to get this reader to throw the book in the trash.

Hm. We all know about period Nazis. Does that make me a fiction Nazi? I really have ripped books in half and tossed them in the burn barrel when the writing disgusted me enough.

I’ve yet to rip-and-toss one of Patterson’s books like that, but he does use some irritating gimmicks. Some of his serial killer alpha villians are given almost godlike omniscience, the ability to know things about the hero (e.g. Alex Cross) that are just really, really not likely at all. Jonathan Kellerman does the same thing to his main men, psychologist Alex Delaware and Alex’s cop friend, Milo Sturgis.

It’s certainly not that there’s any lack of man’s real inhumanity to man. In the 1960’s, I recall hearing about a young hitchhiker who was picked up by a family in my native Montana. The family invited him to stay with them when they stopped near the highway to camp out for the night. He accepted the invitation, then killed his hosts and dined on their flesh. Before the year was out, he was caught in California, identified as the cannibal murderer by the thumb in his pocket that was not his own.

But if we choose to write fiction about such things, could we not at least do it right? Titillation of the reader’s desire to explore the dark side without actually facing death is one thing; substandard writing is quite another.