Demystifying the Serial Killer | Mechanics' Institute

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Demystifying the Serial Killer

Avid mystery fans are undoubtedly familiar with the image of a serial killer as an eccentric genius, expertly leading police on dark, wild chases fed by premeditated clues designed to  result in endless detours. The highly intelligent murderer also tantalizes us in countless television series and blockbuster films. But if you're in the mood for a clever new twist on serial killer novels, check out the latest title by Irish writer Catherine Ryan Howard and reviewed by Mechanics' Institute staffer Steven Dunlap:

"The Nothing Man is an offbeat thriller about Eve Black, the only survivor of a killing spree who writes a book about that experience thirty years later. The novel becomes a bestseller, piquing the interest of readers everywhere, including the still-at-large killer. As Black gets closer to the truth, the 'Nothing Man,' as he has come to be called because he leaves no trace of himself at the crime scene, is forced out of hiding.

"Howard's novel does much to challenge the cultural obsession of a serial killer as a 'dark magician.' In an essay on, the Edgar-nominated author explains how her research for this book led to her realization that our cultural construct of what she calls "the serial killer as dark magician" falls apart when examining case histories of actual criminals. In studying case files for The Nothing Man, Howard said she discovered how little intelligence or expertise serial killers actually had or needed in previous decades. Historically, criminals simply took advantage of institutional failures, the lack of sophisticated DNA testing and a faulty system of shared information between police jurisdictions, making getting away with murder as easy as crossing county or state lines."

If you are a fan of psychological thrillers such as The Nothing Man, you may also enjoy these (all titles can be reserved and checked out through MI's To Go express library service):

The Alienist by Caleb Carr - Dark, atmospheric 19th century murder investigation by Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, a brilliant psychologist with rather unconventional methods. Gaslit New York City never looked or felt so foreboding in the TNT television series by the same name. 

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsey - Mild-mannered Dexter Morgan works as a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami police by day. By night, Morgan roams the streets in his secret life as a murderer of other criminals. You'll never look at shipping containers or plastic wrap in the same way after reading Lindsey's novel or watching the book-based TV series called Dexter. 

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock - Gritty and brutally violent, Pollock unflinchingly serves up a cast of depraved yet compelling characters, starting with tormented veteran Willard Russell, newly returned from World War II, a husband-and-wife team who troll the highways for victims and a spider-obsessed preacher. Optioned by Netflix in 2018, Pollock's novel was made into a film premiering in September. 

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff - Pulp storytelling at its finest, impudently stirring up H.P. Lovecraft's characters as well as his grand supernatural visions but reinvented in a Jim Crow era escapade, Matt Ruff-style. The brand new TV series by the same name serves up monsters and adventure, all the while exploring racism and prodding the legacy of slavery in America.

Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell - A former reporter who worked in a medical examiner's office, Cornwell proves that male authors aren't the only ones who excel at serial killer investigations. Phyllis Nagy, screenwriter for the 2015 movie Carol has been signed on to adapt Cornwell's book and more importantly, the character of Kay Scarpetta, medical examiner into a film.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn - Troubled reporter Camille Preaker returns to her hometown to investigate the murders of two young girls. Camille's twisted family dynamics along with sharp, stylish depictions of a small southern town's backstabbing, bored females are fabulous fodder for the TV series by the same name. Not for Mary Poppins fans. 

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo - It's comforting to know that authors like Nesbo will carry on the Nordic noir legacy of Henning Mankell (Wallander) and Steig Larsson (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Exceptional characterization and chilling suspense tell the story of Inspector Harry Hole, who must break the pattern of eleven women who go missing, all on the day of the first snow. 

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith - Bad boy sociopath Tom Ripley is a handsome, extremely likable character, not at all the type you'd even suspect of murder. Entertaining yet darkly unsettling, the story provided the basis for the excellent 1999 psychological thriller by the same name.

Posted on Aug. 25, 2020 by Steven Dunlap