Dearly Devoted Dexter
I teach creative writing in a maximum security prison in Philadelphia. During the week I scour two thrift shops for 35-cent paperbacks that I haul in to stock a small lending library I created for inmates. Amazingly, the prison had no library.
In the process of collecting used books, I've surveyed the crime, mystery and noir genre of popular fiction. I collect some books for myself and have read many in part or end to end. The range of quality in such a genre runs from garbage to genius.
I'm a Vietnam veteran and a veteran anti-war activist who follows the US war news closely. The psychological and mythic forces of Eros and Thanatos (Death) interest me and how they play out in popular culture. Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents writes about "the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction." Eros is the force that brings humans together and Thanatos is the force that drives us apart. "This struggle is what all life essentially consists of," Freud writes. Chris Hedges also writes of this split in his great book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning .
The other day I picked up Jeff Lindsay's second book in the Dexter series -- Dearly Devoted Dexter -- about a Miami police department forensic expert by day and psychopathic killer by night. Lindsay's Dexter novels have spun off into a popular Showtime TV series. The Miami Herald called the book about a lovable serial killer "A macabre work of art."
Personally, I wouldn't pay the full cover price for this book. Still, Lindsay is a fine prose writer whose characters are well drawn and set within a fast-paced plot that ping-pongs from the sweet, personal and mundane to the truly horrific blood feast. Dexter as first-person narrator speaks in a tone of light, ironic gallows humor with the reader assumed as a friendly confidant. His day job is as a blood-spatter expert with the Miami-Dade Police Homicide Department.
In this book, Dexter has a relationship with a woman named Rita who has two kids, a boy and a girl, Cody and Astor. All three are wounded from abuse by her ex-husband. Interestingly, Dexter makes it clear he doesn't care so much about Rita and is not interested in sex. At one point, this disciple of Thanatos is drinking beer and finds himself in bed snuggling with Rita and succumbing to the Erotic. "She was just so nice and smelled so good and felt so warm and comfortable that -- Well. Beer really is amazing stuff, isn't it?"
What Dexter really cares about is Rita's kids, especially the boy Cody. On a fishing trip, he notices Cody taking pleasure in plunging a knife into a flopping blue runner. He learns from Astor that little Cody killed the neighbor dog for pooping in their yard.
"I had a son. Someone just like me," Dexter says. "I wanted him to grow up to be like me -- mostly, I realized, because I wanted to shape him and place his tiny feet onto the Harry path." Harry was Dexter's "wise foster father," the man who recognized in the teenager a psychopathic need to kill and channeled that destructive impulse onto the noble path of killing only those who deserve to be killed.
This is pure genre writing so, predictably, Dexter's "Dark Passenger" (that's his Mr. Hyde killer persona) is faced right away with the need to kill a hideous pederast who duct tapes young boys, then rapes and kills them on his boat, finally dropping them into the Gulf Stream to never be seen again. It's clear this man deserves to die. The formula is that Dexter never kills anyone mourn-able; his prey is always someone demonized beyond any degree of human sympathy.
I don't want to make a case for the immorality of the Dexter series, although I think one could easily make that case. Devotees of Dexter glibly toss off any questions of immorality, saying, hey, it's fiction. Lindsay says he's like Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan; his character has grown into an icon that now belongs to the greater culture. He puts the Dexter attraction this way: "It's having the bully on your side to finish your battles for you. People love that. If someone bothers you, you can say that's all right, Dexter will take care of this, and the people like that."