Mindful of FBI profiler Jack Crawford's advice in "The Silence of the Lambs" that the "last thing you want is Hannibal Lechter inside your head," I approached Jeff Lindsay's "Dearly Devoted Dexter" with some skepticism and trepidation. Many serial killer novels are either too sick or too tricky, and the Dexter books seem like a candidate for both faults.
Lindsay's premise is that a guy who knows he's a "monster" preys on serial killers rather than letting his dark urges go wild on the innocent. The story is told in a darkly charming and witty first-person narrative, which is completely disarming. Even in the reprehensible "Hannibal," a book that justified every criticism of those who think that the serial killer genre glorifies monsters, Thomas Harris maintained some distance by telling the tale in the third person.
Because of the extremely evil nature of those he hunts and because he has become embroiled in the everyday concerns of family life (despite his repeated insistence that, as a sociopath, he cares not for such things), we are sucked into identifying with him and even root for him to succeed as he indulges his urges.
A blood splatter expert for the Miami police, Dexter was an abused orphan adopted by a cop who recognized that he had something broken inside. His guardian set guidelines that Dexter scrupulously follows, namely that he murders only serial killers - particularly pedophiles - and he must obtain absolute proof of guilt.
When a man is found dismembered in a way that will keep him alive but crazy from pain and the experience, Dexter realizes he's dealing with a whole new kind of cruelty. His sister, a Miami detective who knows about his dark side, involves him in the case. Meanwhile, another cop, Sergeant Doakes, has been tailing Dexter, sure something hinky is going on.
Dexter senses a bit of a kindred spirit in Doakes, but Doakes is determined to take Dexter down. Dexter then starts spending more quality time with the girlfriend he uses for cover and finds himself more drawn to normal life - and to the kids whose abused background and fascination with death remind him of himself.
Lindsay is a wickedly clever writer, and the narrative zips along even while posing serious questions in a subversive manner. Can someone who constantly recognizes his moral failings and makes judgments about his own actions really be considered a sociopath? If a guy with Dexter's drawbacks can subjugate his wishes to those of his girl and put the kids' interest first, doesn't that make him better-than-average husband material?
Despite its perverse-sounding premise, there's a moral center to the black satire of "Dearly Devoted Dexter," which means we can both enjoy this book late into the night and respect ourselves in the morning.
"The Death Collectors," meanwhile, is Jack Kerley's second novel to feature the Mobile, Ala., detective team of Carson Ryder and Harry Nautilus, who have a part-time gig as the police department's specialists in serial murders.
Kerley's hook is that Ryder's brother is an imprisoned psychopath who killed their abusive father - before going on a killing spree - thus sparing Carson that abuse. Carson uses the very scary Jeremy as a resource in hunting down psychos, but after Dexter, this device looks darned ordinary.
What is not ordinary is Jack Kerley's talent. "The Death Collectors" is an even more accomplished novel than Kerley's terrific debut, "The Hundredth Man."
Thirty years ago, Marsden Hexcamp, a mad painter, and his Manson-like cult were responsible for several deadly pieces of performance art throughout the South. His final bow was a staged murder-suicide at his sentencing hearing. Now, people associated with him, mainly women who thought they had put the horror behind them, are being killed.
Ryder and Nautilus find there is a thriving market in genuine serial killer memorabilia, and rumor has it that the missing cache of Hexcamp's "art" is about to be sold to the highest bidder in an auction for sickos.
In the same way that Hitchcock used a voyeuristic movie, "Rear Window," to comment on voyeurism, Kerley uses a novel about serial killers to make some pointed comments on our fascination with serial killers.
Kerley shows genuine sympathy for his characters, and his tough cops are real people with compassion as well as a thirst for justice. The plot is ingenious and full of surprises, though it plays fair at every turn.
For those who might consider Dexter going a smidge too far, Ryder and Nautilus deliver a great reading experience in a far more conventional package.