Archive for November, 2009

For some reason, I’ve been reading a lot of serial killer novels lately, even though I’m not a huge serial killer fan. As I’ve said elsewhere, I find them less interesting than other types of villains. But the thrillers I’ve been reading over the past couple of months all feature serial killers with various levels of crazy. In addition, all these guys (and they’re all guys, of course) share a common trait—they’re all geniuses.

Let’s pause for a moment here to consider the problems with that particular trope. First of all, it’s not even close to realistic. The reasons serial killers are frequently hard to catch have more to do with their victims, who are often marginalized members of society, and their tendency to move around a lot. It’s also a lot tougher to catch a killer who picks his victims more or less at random than somebody who actually has a motive to kill someone else. Every time I read the “criminal mastermind serial killer” plot, I think about Henry Lee Lucas, who may or may not have been one of the most prolific of serial killers in history, but who was certainly a sociopathic drifter incapable of sitting down and planning the perfect crime.

But, of course, the genius serial killer isn’t based on fact. He’s based on fiction—Thomas Harris’s fiction, to be specific. Most of these master criminals are direct descendants of Hannibal Lecter, and more specifically still, of the movie version of Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins.

So what does this criminal mastermind do? Well, first of all, of course, he kills people in particularly brutal and creative ways. But the other, and in many ways more annoying, thing that these killers do is outwit the cops. Repeatedly. With remarkable ease.

Why is this annoying? Well, beyond the implied slap at police, I find myself getting annoyed with these novels because they give the criminal mastermind an unfair advantage—the cops are always portrayed as idiots. For example, in a thriller I read recently, the killer kidnapped his victims and transported them to another, distant location to kill them, then brought their bodies back to the original location. This involved a lot of trucks, boxes, and occasionally private flights (he was a rich serial killer). But at no time did any of the people investigating said serial killer ever think to ask how he was transporting his victims to and from the location. They didn’t check rental cars or trucks, didn’t try to find out if anyone had recently needed a large, body-sized box loaded, didn’t even look for tire tracks as far as I could tell. In another thriller, the serial killer had worked with his cousin originally, but had struck off on his own when the cousin was killed. The investigators knew that serial killer number two had worked with serial killer number one, but no one bothered to check out serial killer number one’s friends and family. Apparently, that would have been too easy.


While I don’t have anything against the criminal mastermind plot per se (hey, I like Anthony Hopkins as much as the next person), I do think the mastermind ought to have to earn that designation. He can’t be presented as a genius if he only succeeds because others are too dumb to stop him. The bottom line here is this: if the only way a serial killer can work in a story is by making sure the police don’t pursue a normal investigation, that’s not playing fair. Even a criminal mastermind should have to obey the rules of elementary logic.

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