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They're a tie-in with our childhood fears of the boogeyman... so the emotional pathways they evoke were formed at a very early age, and the resulting horror is somehow deeper than many others.

Find someone who wasn't afraid of the thing under the bed or the monster in the closet as a child. There are some out there - I can't relate, personally, I would have benefitted greatly from Gary Larson's 'monster snorkel' - and I'd be willing to bet they don't share that fascination. My husband is one. Never was into the horror movies, never afraid of the dark, and not caught up in real-life horror.

Me...? If he's travelling, I fall asleep with the lights on.


Two things about serial killers:

1) Even though they're often portrayed as being almost superhuman in their cunning (Hannibal Lecter is the apotheosis of this, of course), they have an identifiable pattern to their killings and, therefore, represent a puzzle to be solved. Most murders don't fit a particular pattern--the characteristics of the victims don't match, the killers don't take a particular type of souvenir, whatever--because most murders are committed by people who don't necessarily make a habit of it. That's why many, if not most, murders are either easily solvable--obviously committed between family members or friends, business associates, etc.--or not solvable at all. But with serial killers, when they're stopped, not only do you solve any number of cases but you prevent further murders from taking place.

2) Creepy snuff voyeurism. The details of the murders, crime scenes, and the psychosexual history of the serial killer are depicted in the sort of detail that can be best described as pornographic. Accounts of real-life serial killings can include crime scene photographs showing victims exposed in ways that conventional porn thankfully cannot match.

Exiled in NJ

If it isn't serial killers, it is father/daughter sexual abuse, though these have not been as prevalent as ten or more years ago.

Put most of the blame on "Silence of the Lambs" and Thomas Harris, its progenitor.

Skott Klebe

I agree that the plots in most of the Jesse Stone novels are on the far end of the plausibility meter - what about _Night Passage_, in which the first threat that the new police chief faces is that the town leadership runs a racist militia that's trying to buy guns from the mob? Happens all the time in the sleepy northern suburbs of the Boston area.
What I do like about the Jesse Stone novels is the absence of Spenser's more rote snark and, for God's sake, Susan Silverman's irresponsible armchair psychoanalysis. [Mind you, I'm a big fan of Spenser's more imaginative snark, but one does tire of "We'd be fools not to" by the tenth or twentieth time it's used to get out of a conversation that Parker is done with.] And, by Cthulu's slavering sneer, Pearl the egregious Wonder Dog. The crime figures, especially, gain new interest in the Stone and Sunny Randall books; in the Spenser books, for instance, Tony Marcus comes off as a clowning puppy in the face of Spenser's physical invulnerability. Sunny Randall is scared of him (although she still confronts him). Spenser treats Gino Fish as warily as you would, say, the neighbors aggressive Jack Russell terrier, while Jesse Stone treats him with the level of professional caution I would expect from a competent policeman.
Maybe this is a way to think about it: in the Stone books, the stories are implausible, but the protagonist is much more like a real person than Spenser is. Spenser is engaging but his physical powers are entirely implausible, especially since he's turning 70 this year.

_School Days_ was his best book in a while. _Cold Service_, on the other hand, made _Pot Shot_ look like _Instance of the Fingerpost_. [Why th' heck did he write that _Cold Service_? _Small Vices_ wasn't bad enough already?]
The best Spenser books were written a long time ago, before RBP started writing for the screen. _Judas Goat_, _Early Autumn_ (which is set in my neighborhood), _Ceremony_, and so on.


I agree, I think it is the attraction to the fear (and excitement) the boogeyman elicits as well as the attraction to solving a puzzle... and of course in the end, there is the satisfaction of seeing the killer be punished which according to recent studies if a man sees, the pleasure centers of his brain light up whereas if a woman sees this, the empathy spots light up... but let's not delve back into a discussion of the sexes!

I used to love scary novels and movies, but found after having children that I can't take them anymore and yes, if my husband is gone, a light stays on.


I know that big, violent men are the primary paradigm, but you shouldn't forget the Paul Giacomin character. Not big, not violent. A dancer, for god's sake. Yet he has shown a perfectly valid option in Spenser's realm of authentic, hairy chested he-men.

Of course, he doesn't show up all that often.


I've tried to like Parker (ok, not all that hard, but I've tried), and I just can't. I like a lot of different detectives, but Spenser just doesn't do it for me.

Wolfe/Goodwin and Holmes on the cerebral side, and Travis McGee on the physical; those I can admire. Most of McDonald's non-McGee stuff is equally good, and he does it without inventing characters whose physical prowess is their major attribute.


I always loved Edward X. Delaney in the Lawrence Sanders books.

Exiled in NJ

Give James Lee Burke a read. Meeting his Dave Robichaux is like listening to a barhound sometimes, as he analyzes his summer of 1957 over and over again, but Burke's bad guys are great, as is Dave's buddy Cletus. But both he and Spenser seem to modeled on Robert Mitchum playing Marlowe, or any detective, once Bob got past 60. It's a wonder how these late middle age men beat the bejabbers out of the bad guys. Of course when Hollywood gave us Robichaux, they used Alec Baldwin. Yuck.

I have an unwritten rule that says the detective should be bumped off in Book 4; they outlive their welcome by then. In fact, the cerebral Nicolas Freeling did just that to von der Valk; then he ruined it all by having Mme van der Valk solve the case.


My weakness? Jack Reacher novels. Pure airport gun-porn, but his one-shade-off sociopathy is amusing, because *Reacher* finds it amusing how so many people make assumptions about his lack of ties and stoic mien.

As for serial killers, well, they are efficient murder delivery systems. The reader really doesn't have to care about them, their motives, their juvenile damage -- the only compassion we have is for the effort the hero must extend in turning the killer into red mist.

mrs. norman maine

Lance, as I recall, if you keep with Stone Cold, or stick to the end, you'll find a shift concerning the Jen factor. A sea change, if you will.

I agree that Spencer's story is more compelling, and I attribute that to the Susan factor. Not SS herself so much, but Spencer's devotion to her. It redeems much of the tough-guy crap. I like that he and Hawk can sit outside and unabashedly appreciate the skirts going by, but appreciate even more the distinction that there is something broken in Hawk which will never really let him see women as more than skirts, while Spencer tells complete strangers (especially those who are coming on to him) about the wonder that is Susan Silverman. Bless his lusty, true-blue heart.

Anne Laurie

Well, that's the main reason I could never warm up to the Spencer novels: If not an actual sociopath, Spencer is definitely missing some ability to form connections that most humans have. I don't believe his "romance" with Silverman, or his "bond" with Hawk, because both those secondary characters are not only more interesting other than the Main Guy, but they're not shown as getting anything out of their ongoing relationship with Spencer than tsuris and the occasional gourmet blow-out. In real life, sociopaths don't keep up long-term human relationships, not just because they "use up" their friendships, but because normal people don't stay in user/object relationships indefinitely! And that's one reason that the Travis McGee novels are, in my opinion, better than any of Parker's mysteries: McGee was believable, in some sense, because while he WAS missing that gene/hormone/talent, he KNEW that he was missing it. McGee couldn't connect to other people, and he kept hanging around with Meyer largely because he perceived Meyer as having an excess of what he was missing. As McGee saw it, Meyer's exceptional talent made it possible for him to explain "normal" people's motivations to connectivity-blind McGee. But it also, McGee believed, make it possible for Meyer to connect with McGee's damaged, unloveable personality in a way that normal people couldn't.

If readers are going to stay interested in the Classic Detective -- the Rational, Solitary Hero -- I think we need an "intermediary" to make the hero believably human. Sherlock Holmes had Watson, Nero Wolfe had Archie Baldwin, Jeeves had Bertie Wooster, and Spock needed Kirk quite as much as Kirk needed Spock. It's not necessarily that most readers are idiots, or even that we like feeling superior to idiots like Wooster; Archie is smart enough to solve mysteries on his own, and Captain Kirk was crippled by overweening self-centeredness more than mere stupidity. But without some ongoing "connection" to the human race, the Giant Mind is too mechanical a concept to be readable; and without some kind of reciprocity between Great Mind and Narrator/Assistant (Holmes regularly plays the "weak, wounded addict" card when Watson's attention wanders to his own family & medical career, for instance) readers stop believing the connection.

Speaking of Holmes, and Hugh Laurie, I'd be interested in your opinion of HOUSE, M.D. In this series on Fox, Laurie gets to play the Great-Mind infectious-disease genius (he was, of course, Bertie Wooster in the BBC series) against an ensemble of Watsons who are quite competent actors on their own. Gregg House is a preternaturally gifted clinician (like the Dr. Bell on whom Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was originally based) but also an embittered loner, a Vicodin addict, and engaged in a perpetual, frequently childish war with every form of "authority" in order to solve the medical-mystery-of-the-week. My husband & I are Netflixing our way through last year's first season on DVD, and it's even got me planning to watch network television once it's no longer being pre-empted by American Idol. (Which would be some kind of essay on its own... a well-written, intelligent series with competent actors versus a slumgullion of celebrity-worship & amateurism... welcome to modern America... )

Anne Laurie

Why serial killers? Well, if every society doesn't get the villains it deserves, at least it gets the literary monsters it wants. Sherlock Holmes' antagonists may have looked impenetrable at first sight, but the Great Mind reassured his contemporary readers that even religious fanatics (Mormons, Hindus) could be "figured out" through the rigorous application of human rationality, and that tabloid horrors like locked-room murders, slavering ghost dogs, and floating yellow masks usually devolved into the commonest human dilemmas. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple were staunchly middle-class upholders of common folk and common decencies threatened by wars, depressions, and the invention of new "scientific" rationales for old, ugly vices. Travis McGee told us that there were still heroes to defend weak, helpless individuals; James Bond told us that our official defenders could remain not only staunch but stylish while protecting virtous Us against ugly, inhuman Them; Lew Archer, in a sadder day, insisted that we might not be able to protect the weak from destruction but we'd at least be able to bear witness against the petty horrors of their destroyers. Hannibal Lector didn't spark the modern craze for serial killers (and, as Exiled in NJ says, parental sexual abuse) -- he was simply the first big-ticket embodiment of our secret fear that the world really IS insane, that our villans are undefeatable (if/and therefore all the more attractive), that everyone wants absolute power just so that they can be absolutely corrupt, and that our only recourse is to sit back and enjoy the "glamour" of our new "sophisticated" world view. Hannibal Lector is a member in good standing of Tom DeLay's K Street Project, or the DLC Triangulation Committee, and only some of us find this admirable but quite a few of us find this fascinating. (Not me; I get enough ugliness reading the news without searching out fictional analogs.)

mrs. norman maine

I've often held forth after finding a twisted serial killers in my otherwise well-crafted novel with the petulance of an old woman finding a hair in her soup.

But of course it comes down to readers' choice. Does one prefer the magnifying lens to linger over the tedious ways in which the sadist plots and carries out his torture, or insted the detective's imperfect quest retrieve something decent from the wreckage?

The former almost always bores me, especially when we are treated to endless chapters from the killer's POV.

I can get by on a mystery if it has at least one of these strong elements -- the personality of the detective, the atmosphere of the story, the intricacy of the mystery or even (less frequently) the fascination of the victim. Almost never am I drawn in by the killer himself. (Or herself. Whatever.)

The idea of a fascinating villain -- even as a perfect foil for the hero -- should have died with Moriarity.


For several years now, it has bothered me that Spenser, a Korean War veteran, and, therefore, somewhere around 70, is still credible as a tough guy. His skills and attitude, even in a diminished body, may allow him to take on younger, stronger faster amateurs, but he has no business walloping professional thugs.

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