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I think it's fairly safe to say that as a genre -- no matter what the medium -- the field of serial-killers is moving, rather quickly, from stale to downright stagnant. Seriously, it doesn't matter if the novel or movie is focused on the killer themselves or the cops and technicians charged to bring them down, there is very little new to be found under the blood drenched sheets. Frankly, I'm tired of omnipotent/omniscient killers -- sorry, no one is that good or lucky. And the cocky, self-righteous arrogance -- bordering on megalomania, of some the investigators is almost as bad if not worse! Yes, I'm looking right at you, Mr. Bruckheimer; you and your C.S.I. bull-twaddle. (Keerist, Quincy would have solved those cases in about ten minutes with just Sam and a pair of tweezers.)

Allow me, if you will, a quick aside on the whole C.S.I./Crossing Jordan glut that I find hilarious courtesy of comedian Patrice O'Neal, where he jokes about why he never litters -- afraid that his casually discarded Pepsi can will wind up next to a corpse, and then his prints and DNA on said can will send him to death-row as The Soda-Pop Killer. Cue Pete Townsend power ballad; cue slow-motion perp walk, etc. etc. etc...

And yet still I read and watch (and try to write one of) these infernal things, hoping for something new and different. Some are good (Kathy Reichs), some not so good (Patricia Cornwell -- what the heck happened to you?), and some are monumentally stupid. (Too many to name.) But then once in awhile, one sneaks up on you from out of nowhere and surprises the hell out of ya.

The first I ever heard of Jeff Lindsay's Dexter Morgan was during a preview for the new Showtime Series. The idea was intriguing, to say the least: a serial-killer with a conscience. Interesting ... Kind of a contemporary Dirty Harry for the new millennium/forensics generation. Sounds cool. And intriguing, yes, but I honestly gave it about a snowball's chance in hell to actually work.

But then I saw the first few episodes of Dexter, and it was pretty good. Damn good. Something clicked, and clicked hard enough for me to track down the source material: two novels; Darkly Dreaming Dexter and Dearly Devoted Dexter, and then another, Dexter in the Dark, that just came out last month that I polished off a few nights ago.

In Darkly Dreaming, we're introduced to Dexter Morgan, a blood-splatter analyst for the Miami-Dade police department by day and a ruthless serial-killer by night. As a character, Dexter is a turd -- a charming and likeable and endearing turd, but a turd nonetheless. Seems our protagonist harbors a "dark passenger" whose bloodlust must be fed once a moon cycle. The catch? Dex only kills the bad guys.

Using the resources available to him as a P.D. lab-rat, Dexter sets his sights on those who murder and maim but manage to avoid capture or punishment for one reason or another -- and he's especially hard on pedophiles and child murderers. (Plot Point!) Believing he was born with a need to kill, Dexter's homicidal urges are tempered only by the intervention of his step-father, the late Harry Morgan, a cop, who recognized young Dexter for what he was, considering where he came from, and molded him to channel those sinister urges in a relatively positive and proactive endeavor.

I know. It sounds idiotic, right? But, dammit, it works:

A rash of neatly packaged body parts that used to be several prostitutes turning up all over the city provides the fulcrum that moves the plot along. Dubbed The Ice-Truck Killer, Dexter, along with his step-sister/vice-cop Deb, are drawn into a strange web of danger and revelations as the elusive killer leaves specific clues for our hero that seem to unlock memories of Dexter's clouded past, long buried and suppressed. The thing is, Dexter isn't really trying to solve the crime. He takes these clues as an invitation to come and play with a fellow traveler in a very messy playground, setting up a bloody climax where Dexter must face down his demons and make a very tough, familial choice or give in to the temptation of the blade.

To say much more would spoil that ending, so I'll just say it ends badly for someone but won't say who -- and the ending is much, much different than the Showtime version.

Next up, Dearly Devoted takes up almost immediately where Dreaming left off. And after the brutal events that concluded the last book, Dexter has come under the suspicions of Sgt. Doakes, a homicide detective who knows a real psycho-killer when he sees one -- mostly because Doakes used to be one when he was in the military; more specifically, special-ops, doing covert wet-work for the government in Central America. So Dexter puts his knives and duct tape to the side and settles into a domestic life with his girlfriend, Rita, who he tolerates to keep up appearances, and her two children, Astor and Cody, whom he truly adores, hoping to lull the ever watchful Doakes off his trail so he can get back to doing what he does best -- killing the wicked.

Meanwhile, another killer is running amok in Miami, turning his victims into "human potatoes" by surgically removing everything -- and I mean everything, one piece at a time: fingers, toes, hands, feet, legs, arms, ears, nose, lips, tongue, eyelids, sexual organs ... bleaugh! Recognizing this particular gruesome signature as the handiwork of Dr. Danco, a fellow special-ops assassin, who really enjoyed his work a little too much and eventually switched sides, Doakes realizes that all the victims were members of his old unit -- and soon he's the only one left with all of his bits intact. Things then get quickly turned around as Doakes' only hope of survival is good old Dexter, which, of course, means we culminate in another bloodbath.

I honestly thought Lindsay painted himself into a corner at the conclusion of the fist novel -- a prickly situation involving Dexter's sister, Deb, and I was curious as to how he'd get out of it. And get out of it he does by basically glossing over and ignoring it completely. On that I'll call foul, but, what the heck, I still enjoyed the book.

Which brings us to the third novel, Dexter in the Dark, where I'm afraid the author takes this interesting concept and character and ruins them by running them completely off the rails.

During his recent bout with domesticity in the last novel, a succession of comical errors finds Dexter and Rita engaged. This would be Rita's second marriage -- the first was to a crack-head who had a bad habit of bludgeoning his wife and children on a nightly basis. Needless to say, after bearing witness to all of that violence, Astor and Cody's view of the world is a little skewed to the dark side -- and they have a bad habit of taking out these feelings on the neighborhood pets.

Of course, this brings Dex and the children closer together as he takes it upon himself to teach these two small, fractured mirror-images Harry's Code of Serial-Killing Ethics. But between keeping these tiny terrors in line and planning the wedding, Dexter's problems are compounded when his own Dark Passenger inexplicably disappears with the appearance of two charred and headless bodies at the University of Miami. With his spiritual guide gone AWOL, and feeling naked and exposed without it, Dexter is way off his game as the bodies keep piling up. But with each new body comes a few clues that point toward an ancient Sumerian cult being responsible for not only the rash of homicides, but the reason for the Dark Passengers sudden disappearance. And for those same reasons, Dexter is now a target for sacrifice -- along with Cody and Astor. Will Dexter get his lethal edge back in time to save the day?

Man, I hate to say this, but by the last few chapters of the book, I really didn't care anymore if he did or didn't. Yeah, I knew I was in trouble when the first chapter was told from the perspective of the Passenger, revealing itself to be some ancient evil/metaphysical B.S. that's been around since the dinosaurs and has been jumping hosts ever since. So no, seeing his mother slaughtered with a chainsaw and wallowing in the aftermath for days didn't turn Dexter bad, Gozer the Gozerian just took up residence in his noggin. (An origin amazingly reminiscent of the Killdozer.) And there's more than one "demon", and some are more powerful than others --  yes, Dexter's Passenger was scared off by the killer's bigger, badder demon. *sigh* I wasn't necessarily thrilled with the Cody and Astor homicidal Mini-Me plot, whose seeds were planted in Dearly Devoted, either, but that I could live with. This... this, as a fan, is an unforgivable misstep. Congratulations, Mr. Lindsay; it is your character to do with as you please, but way to take something twisted and original and turn it into something hackneyed and monumentally stupid.

The first two books are told solely from Dexter's point of view, while the third kind of strays off to allow “The Watcher” to watch and taunt our hero, marking time until the final trap is sprung. Whoever’s talking, Lindsay's prose is snappy and hilarious despite the context that's usually very, very squishy. Honestly, where all the novels excel -- especially the first two -- is when it's focused not on the killing, but on Dexter's efforts to appear human; something he can barely comprehend and manage. His cool and collected blather about his narcissistic dark side is quickly short-circuited when he's forced to interact with others, making him all the more real. There's something there, something truly trying to be human, and you'll actually find yourself rooting for the guy

At least I was until the third book.

Originally Posted: 11/30/07 :: Rehashed: 05/20/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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