Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Books: Dex gets back to basics.

After an auspicious debut and a sequel that actually improved on the original, the third book in Jeff Lindsay's Dexter series – the popular killer-kills-killers mystery series that inspired the Showtime TV series – was something of a debacle. While the novel contained some of the pleasingly black humor that is the series's hallmark and included a few important series-altering narrative developments, the third novel's unexpected foray into overt supernaturalism was widely considered a mistake and, for the most part, left fans groaning or scratching their heads. I know of more than one fan that swore off the series.

Whether Lindsay also felt that the more blatantly supernatural route was a dead end or he was simply reacting to the overwhelming response from the fan base, the upcoming fourth Dexter novel, Dexter By Design (available in hardcover this September from Doubleday), happily strips the jarring otherworldly elements from the series and returns Miami's most prolific serial killer to the Florida Weird crime comedy he's best at.

For those more familiar with the show than with the books, I'll do a quick recap of the story so far and, hopefully, the differences between the two series will become clear enough.

Dexter Morgan is a Miami PD blood splatter expert. He's also a serial killer. Adopted by a police officer who recognized Dexter for what he was, Dexter was trained to become a rigorously meticulous vigilante, taking out his bloodlust on criminals too clever to be nabbed by conventional means. Dexter's sister, Deborah, is also a police detective. Though she was kept in the dark by both Dex and her now deceased father for most of her life, as the fourth novel opens, Deborah is aware of, but uncomfortable with, what Dexter is.

While working in the police department gives Dexter access to the info and resources he needs to carry on his gory campaign against Miami's criminal population, it also means that he's surrounded by the professionally suspicious. While Dexter's thin façade of bland likeability is enough to throw off most off his co-workers, there are a couple of suspicious cops keeping an eye on him. First and foremost is a former detective named Doakes. Once a formidable officer, Doakes ran afoul of one of Dexter's targets and was left horribly crippled (he's missing some major extremities and has to speak through a Stephen Hawkings-esque voice box). Though no longer a major player in police investigations, Doakes continues to watch Dexter, hoping for a screw up. In one particularly nice bit of characterization, we learn that Doakes has preprogrammed the phrase "I'm watching you, motherfucker" into his voice box to avoid having to type the whole thing out every time he has to say it.

Dexter is newly married to Rita, his long-time girlfriend, and has two children by way of that marriage: his stepdaughter Astor and his stepson Cody. Previously, Dexter recognized that both Astor and Cody exhibit the same barely suppressed homicidal urges that he himself showed as a child. Though the chronically unaware Rita seems oblivious to her children's nascent serial killer drives, Dexter makes it his task train them as his own father trained him.

The fourth novel opens with Dex and Rita on a Paris honeymoon. A quick appetizer before the main course, this short section serves to introduce Dex to new readers and suggest the theme of the new mystery in the form of a violent performance art piece Rita and Dex stumble across. Called Jennifer's Leg, the piece features a young woman – Jennifer, one assumes – removing her leg with a circular saw. Ah, Paris!

Safely back in the land of doughnuts, traffic jams, Cuban ex-pats, and loud Hawaiian print shirts, Dex quickly finds himself put on a case involving a visual artist who is leaving artfully mutilated corpses as part of campaign of civic terror. The investigation into the corpses goes awry when one of the suspects knifes Deb, putting her into a coma due to blood loss.

Dexter may be an emotionless sociopath, but even he understands that violence directed at one's kin demands some level of special attention. Dex does as Dex does and exacts a swift and gory revenge on the morbid installation artist. The end.

Only, for poor Dex, it ain't. Following Dex's swift retribution, he finds out, in rapid succession, that 1) the artist wasn't actually killing people because the bodies were swiped from a local morgue, 2) the artist was not working alone, 3) the artist's two collaborators caught Dexter's vengeance on video, and 4) decide, in the face of Dexter's violence, to escalate their own project to new homicidal heights.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Deb's new partner, a bloated oaf of a man whose outsized frame hides a surprising effective detective's mind, starts to suspect something is amiss with Dex. But he'll have to get in line. Deb's stabbing attracts IA's attention, which means the Internal Affairs is all up in Dex's grill – what with the main suspect in Deb's stabbing going missing and all and Dex's career being one long series of "just happened to be where all the shit went down" incidents. And, for good measure, Doakes uses the possibility that the corpse-installations are serial murders to point out Dexter to a sympathetic FBI agent from the branch office.

Seriously, it's like it isn't even worth being a serial killer some times.

Credulity straining plots and overly elaborate serial killings are par for the series. I can't prove it, but I suspect the number of fans who read the Dexter books as mysteries can be counted on a single hand. Like may post-hardboiled mystery books, plotting takes the place of detection and who the villain is seems less important than how the hero gets to them. For example, in this particular "case" Dexter and Deb's first real lead pays off in just a couple chapters. The series's real draw has always been its bracingly amoral, yet charming narrator – Dexter, himself – and the cognitive dissonance of his bemused detachment from the carnage he witnesses and causes. Unlike the television series, which has made Dexter a more tortured character who is less emotionless than simply profoundly emotionally damaged (a good choice for the show's episodic, soap-ish format), the book's Dexter is a more blithely inhuman creature. There's a degree to which Lindsay is incapable of preventing some humanizing emoting; the task of creating a truly sociopathic character would be impossible for anybody except, I imagine, a sociopath. Emotions are simply too central to everything we understand about characterization and motivation. That said, Lindsay's original Dexter is a far creepier and in some ways a more interesting character. When Lindsay's writing him well, Dexter possesses a sort of internal bright-eyed innocence. Incapable of horror or moral discernment, he grasps ethics and morals the way others attempt to grasp the finer points of good manners: There's a code and Dexter tries to follow it for the sake of easing necessary social interaction, but none of it makes much sense and it all seems kind of silly. (Perhaps the finest example of this occurs in the second book, where Dexter finds himself in the clutches of a torture specialist turned serial dismemberer. Instead of fight-or-flight panic or stoic courage in the face of definitive discomfort, Dexter is simply curious about the techniques that he suspects will be used on him. This light and almost boyish curiosity is made even more grisly by the fact that he's thinking these thoughts while Doakes is getting chopped up in front of him.) Happily, for die-hard loyalists and those fans that may have declared the series dead, this pleasingly twisted Dexter is back in fighting form.

An excellent return to the core values that made the books work so well, Dexter By Design is a welcome addition to the series.


Wings1295 said...

Cannot wait for this book! Love Dexter, and Lindsay is great.

Frank White said...

I may have to give the books a try. I caught a couple episodes of the show, but the premise and Dexter's characterization always rang false to me. (He never actually seems like a true sociopath.)