It’s been close to 13 years since I first read this book. The “Dexter” show was in full swing and I ran across the book in the stores and, since I wanted to be a police-woman, I wanted to see how serial killers thought and behaved first hand. And who could teach better than Dexter, the sociopath serial killer with a killing code.
I remember being disappointed with the small book and its ending and thinking how the show was so much better, but now that the entire series ended after eight marvelous seasons, I decided to give it another go and listen to the audio book while driving to/from work.
I found myself laughing at points and making mental notes of different things that define a serial killer and what makes them tick and how can they blend in in our society so well. It’s a black comedy and witty to no end and my favourite type of book: a tingling spine chiller.
Dexter, a forensic `blood splatter analyst’ for the Miami Police, is a secret `controlled sociopath’.
The sociopathic tendencies as defined by Psychology today are:
- Superficial charm and good intelligence
- Absence of delusions and other signs of irrational thinking
- Absence of nervousness or neurotic manifestations
- Untruthfulness and insincerity
- Lack of remorse and shame
- Inadequately motivated antisocial behavior
- Poor judgment and failure to learn by experience
- Pathologic egocentricity and incapacity for love
- General poverty in major affective reactions
- Specific loss of insight
- Unresponsiveness in general interpersonal relations
- Fantastic and uninviting behavior with alcohol and sometimes without
- Suicide threats rarely carried out
- Sex life impersonal, trivial, and poorly integrated
- Failure to follow any life plan
Where Harry’s code has helped Dexter – it has given him a life plan. To weed out the people who went free from the justice system and deserve to die. This is probably why the book starts off with Dexter and his “dark passenger” following a priest and then kidnapping him and confronting him with his deeds: the killing of seven or more innocent children.
After killing him, Dexter does showcase a bit of empathy for the children, which later gets re-iterated when talking about his girlfriend’s two children – Cody and Astor. He does not think of other people as humans, to him they are like props in a world, they do not feel real to him, but children are special – they are still innocent, young and need protection. And he does not want them becoming like him when they grow up. Does this mean that he yearns for his innocence back? To be like a kid again before his mother was brutally murdered and then taken into foster-care?
I am unlovable…I have tried to involve myself in other people, in relationships, and even – in my sillier moments – in love. But it doesn’t work. Something in me is broken or missing and sooner or later the other person catches me Acting or one of Those Nights comes along.”
Otherwise, Dexter is a fully functional adult. He has a job which he loves as he deals with blood splatters and as he puts it – solving crimes is just what others take out of his job. His main purpose is order – wanting to put the drops of blood into a pattern and arrange them so that they make sense. This is probably why he keeps a small drop of blood from all his victims in a case (the priest joins them).
So when a serial killer turns out in the lovely sunny city of Miami, where the light is so bright that makes every murder seem unreal, Dexter finds himself drawn in into the investigation – first by his sister who wants to advance to detective status after working the streets in the Vice department, then by his Dark Passenger who finds himself oddly fascinated by the purity and the beauty of the murders.
No blood. Why didn’t I think of that? Ice stops the blood from spreading.
Dexter also notices – barely – that he is still in the loop because detective LaGuerta has the hots for him and in a very non-subtle way. I mean she massages his leg and makes hints that she knows where to find him if she needs him… Come on! She is full on hitting on poor and unassuming Dexter and the only way he sees her is as a worm, someone to flatter to appear more human in the eyes of others. Well, the flattering paid off and LaGuerta was eyeing him as a woman and not as a co-worker.
“She stared at me “You have a message,” she said. “On you machine.”
I looked over at my answering machine. Sure enough, the light was blinking. The woman really was a detective.
“It’s some girl,” La Guerta said. “She sounds kind of sleepy and happy. You got a girlfriend, Dexter?” there was a strange hint of a challenge in her voice.
“You know how it is,” I said. “Women today are so forward, and when you are as handsome as I am they absolutely fling themselves at your head.” Perhaps an unfortunate choice of words; as I said it I couldn’t help thinking of the woman’s head flung at me not so long ago.
“Watch out,” La Guerta said. “Sooner or later one of them will stick.” I had no idea what she thought that meant, but it was a very unsettling image.
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said. “Until then, carpe diem.”
“It’s Latin,” I said. “It means, complain in the daylight.”
He has such a big list of things he needs to do to fit in – from the way he dresses to how he speaks and how he behaves in every situation.
Surpassing the clichés of eroticized violence and the too serious scientific special effects of CSI series, Dexter’s narrative uses an intelligent dark humour to subvert the rational power of forensic experts, showing that an efficient professional can be as perverted by irrational impulses as the criminals themselves, and what really obsesses a serial killer may turn to be the most normal obsession for a common man: to keep up appearances.
Whenever Dexter pretends to be normal, we recognize his daily rites as things we all do every day, and this explains the audience’s interest in the opening credits sequence for the TV series, Dexter. It shows a man putting himself together (piece by piece, close-up by close-up) in the course of enacting his morning rituals. It begins with an extreme close-up of a mosquito (like Dexter, a blood-sucking predator). Dexter swats it easily indifferent to another kill, another day. A trickle of blood flows into the top of the frame and down the tender skin of the neck. Some drops splatter near the drain in the sink, evoking Hitchcockian memories of blood and drains. He is sure he can present a “normal” face to the world.
He has been doing it all his life, every day. At the end, we see Dexter pulled together, the complete look, as he leaves his apartment and heads out into the world in the harsh light of day. Over-determined, controlled, Dexter catches our eye and flashes an unconvincing but polite smile. Cordial without being warm. He knows we know, but nobody else does. Like Norman Bates, he shares with us his little secret. A common secret that makes us anxious nowadays: modern monsters are no longer visible to the naked eye.
Dexter’s effort in keeping his monstrosity under the cover of appearances expresses a pervasive anxiety similar to a hidden terrorists.
“stay neat, dress nicely, avoid attention.” .. He “took pride in being the best-dressed monster in Dade County”
The only moment he is caught off-guard is when the ice-truck killer leaves the body of a victim in the net of the Panther’s ice rink.
“It was beautiful – in a terrible sort of way, of course. But still, the arrangement was perfect, compelling, beautifully bloodless. It showed great wit and a wonderful sense of composition. Somebody had gone to a lot of trouble to make this into a real work of art. Somebody with style, talent and a morbid sense of playfulness.”
The others around him feel slightly dumb by comparison. He is about three steps ahead of the investigation and he attributes this to the fact that he thinks outside the box. Policeforce is used to putting everything into fitting patterns and when something new appears that does not fit the pattern, they find it hard to adjust and see where it could go. It’s interesting to watch how he feeds Deb information and how he talks to LaGuerta :
“Home or away?” he asks LaGuerta .
She thinks he is joking but he is deadly serious and very smart. Everything has a significance to Dexter. The rink meant that the ball was in their court now. The rearview mirror identified with the body was not a rushed job – was an actual hint that he was watching. They were after him but they didn’t catch him yet. They were being watches. Dexter was being watched. It was personal.
It happens; incompetence is rewarded more often than not.
The thrill of the hunt is what connects both and there is a small bond forming between them. I’m not going to spoil the book by revealing who the killer was but if you, like me, have watched the show, already know this.
The only notable difference from the show is that LaGuerta does not make it. She gets killed and Doakes gets framed for it.
Why I liked the story now even though I didn’t 13 years ago?
Dexter’s contradictory personality is like a mirror reflecting everyone and everything that surrounds him. When he asks himself “what was I?” he immediately answers: “a perfect imitation of human life”. This means he is a true reflection of today’s society. In his contradictions we can see ourselves. Like everyone else, he can build a careful life, be charming, socialize, stay neat and dress nicely, if he doesn’t mind pretending he is human. Consequently, he considers himself “a neat and polite monster, the boy next door.”
This closeness can be frightening, but at the same time very revealing, because this is the true monster’s role in Western mythology.
His past trauma made him a damaged being who is neither a man nor an animal, but something monstrous and different, that can therefore assume a human shape to show that he is often more human than the majority of people living in a repressive moral system. He can be a utopian and amoral sociopath, but he has a moral code with which he controls his Dark Passenger, his dark self – the darkest and most repressed part of human personality that we often avoid to recognize.
This explains Dexter’s loneliness and isolation, which reminds us of Frankenstein’s feeling of exclusion: “Nothing else loves me, or ever will (…) I am alone in the world, all alone, but for Deborah. Except, of course, for the Thing inside.”
However, this strangeness and distance from normal human beings is also what connects Dexter with his readers, who sympathise with his perspective while feeling uncomfortable about this intimate and strange connection with a serial killer, who makes them understand his motives to take justice into his own hands. This transgressive sympathy for the monster and subversive understanding of his actions began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where the representation of Gothic monstrosity caused a shift in sympathies and perspectives that allowed the monster to justify his monstrous behaviour, thus creating a deep empathy with the reader. Furthermore, the reader always wishes for that order and balance to be re-established, even if his hero uses Dexter’s peculiar method of making order out chaos. Ever dark element in Lindsay’s narrative evokes positive values through their negative counterparts. It is as if everyone has a double and everything is inverted and seen on the other side of the looking-glass. As Dexter says:
“It’s like, everything really is two ways, the way we all pretend it is and the way it really is.”
Jeff Lindsay is the author of the acclaimed Dexter novels, now adapted into an award-winning TV series. In addition, Jeff’s plays have been performed on the stage in New York and London. Outside of his writing, Jeff is a musician and karate enthusiast. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida, with his family.
Here are the Dexter novels in series order:
Darkly Dreaming Dexter
Dearly Devoted Dexter
Dexter in the Dark
Dexter by Design
Did you notice?
The title of Jeff Lindsay’s novel is itself representative of a kind of literary mode that is directly associated with the Gothic. Gothic fiction is known for the power its dark narratives hold in penetrating into the most obscure and irrational experiences of human existence to bring to the light of consciousness what had been kept secret and unconscious for a long period of time