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Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
Dexter #1

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard 2006 (2004)
Trade Paperback
288 pages
Crime; Psychological Thriller

Dexter is a serial killer, a killer who just can’t help himself. He doesn’t even see himself as human. But he does have something of a conscience and lives by the Code of Harry, his cop foster father, who understood his nature and sought to help Dexter control it somewhat when he was a teenager. Now a blood spatter analyst for Miami police, he’s brought in on gruesome murder cases and a new serial killer in the city has Dexter feeling inspired, flattered and awestruck – and frightened that it’s really him, doing the killings in his sleep.

His sister Deborah is a cop trying to move her way up but reduced to posing as a hooker to catch curb crawlers, and what with Dexter’s “hunches” about murderers, gets him to help her on the case. Yet he’s ambivalent – he so admires this killer’s work, does he really want to see it end? He’d rather play, and since the killer has been sending him messages through the way the dead bodies are displayed, he’s drawn into a fascinating game with deadly consequences.

I have to say, Dexter is one of the most engaging and interesting – and understandable, perverse as it may be – anti-heroes I’ve ever read. He’s not right in the head and he knows it, he spends a great deal of effort pretending to be human, and ordinary, yet because he only goes after sick bastards like child-molesting priests and the like, you can’t help but appreciate his vigilante efforts – though what he does to his victims is far from a quick and easy death.

It’s a combination of his macabre humour – this book is really quite funny – the characters and his observations of them, and his narrative voice: so effortless, so calm, seeing a perspective and an angle to people that non-sociopaths (is that the right word?) would not see so well. He thinks like a killer, yet still comes across as somewhat naive and innocent. He’s not at all interested in sex or women, so his disguise as “boyfriend” shows this “innocence” well:

And if her uncertain, limping tone of voice, unlike any I had ever heard her use before, was a surprise, imagine how astonished I was by her costume. I believe the thing was called a peignoir; or possibly it was a negligee, since it certainly was negligible as far as the amount of fabric used in its construction was concerned. Whatever the correct name, she was certainly wearing it. And as bizarre as the idea was, I believe the costume was aimed at me. (p.154)

His childlike wonder and appreciation for the way the other killer is slicing up bodies and arranging them also gives him some kind of … childlike quality. It’s hard to find the right adjective for Dexter: he’s a complicated character, because he’s all grey, despite being very clearly a serial killer. There’s no attempt to gloss over that, or excuse him. Yet was there ever a more fascinating and affable murderer? He’s not even creepy – now that’s an achievement! And because it’s not in the least sexual, he’s not creepy in that way either. On the contrary, even though you know he can’t really function normally, you want him to be happy. He’s a bit Batman-ish, in a nerdy way, the dark avenger or something silly like that. Regardless, he’s likeable and even sympathetic; but more necessary to the reading experience: he’s a wonderful narrator with a thing for alliteration – namely with the letter D; truly, he’s very inventive.

I don’t like mass market crime books, I loathe Patricia Cornwall, John Grisham is exceedingly dull, and I couldn’t even finish P.D. James’ The Lighthouse because I was so bored – the problem with your typical crime book is the lack of characterisation. There’s plenty of that here, in fact, it’s all about the characters. There’s still plot, though, and a mystery, which you can figure out somewhat before Dexter does, but it all hinges on the characters. I thought the Epilogue was too rushed, and the relationship resolution between Dexter and Deborah too pat, but they’re minor quibbles. I’m keen to read the next book, Dearly Devoted Dexter.

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