Serial killer Dexter Morgan evokes laughter and fear
Back in the late 1970s, when Jeff Lindsay was in graduate school in theater at Carnegie Mellon, he had a directing teacher from Romania who had a concept called "illegal laughter." "Ve are making the audience to laugh," the funny, theatrical Lindsay says, imitating the accent of his former professor, "and then ve are making them to feel they haff broken the law for doing it."
That, essentially, is the effect Lindsay strives for in Dearly Devoted Dexter, his second detective thriller featuring Dexter Morgan, who assumes the guise of a "mild-mannered forensic lab rat," working by day as a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami police department, but by night as a serial killer, albeit one who only goes after bad guys. Here, as in his well-regarded first novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Lindsay achieves his ends with a pleasing mix of grisly description, devious wit and clever wordplay.
"I want somebody to laugh, then feel the goose bumps on the back of their neck," Lindsay says, elaborating on his premise during a call to his home near Sarasota, Florida. "To go: that's funny - who's behind me?"
It takes a great deal of skill to provoke simultaneously such divergent responses in a reader. One reason Lindsay is able to pull it off is that he makes the monstrous Dexter understandable, even appealing. Dexter tells his story from his own inimitable perspective. And part of that perspective is his frequent assertion that he is not actually a human being. Of course Dexter only gets involved in the hunt for the murderous Dr. Danco, a veteran of the United States' covert operations in El Salvador now bent on revenge against those he thinks have betrayed him, because Dexter's sister, Deb, a Miami police officer, begs him to help her rescue her boyfriend from Danco's clutches. And then there is the darkly farcical scene - Lindsay's favorite - in which Dexter stumbles into becoming engaged to his girlfriend Rita. But why ruin a reader's shocked laughter by saying too much about Lindsay's deft storytelling?
Of his main character's belief that he is not human, Lindsay says, "There has to have been a time when instead of saying, thank God I'm not human, Dexter was saying, why can't I be like everyone else? Nobody is born a villain. You know that about people. That understanding is part of basic acting."
Lindsay's reference to acting is typical. He spent much of his life pursuing an acting career, including almost 15 years in Hollywood. "One of the reasons that I didn't really rocket to the top in Hollywood is that I was trying to do a little bit of everything," Lindsay says. "I was running a theater company with some friends, and I was writing plays, and acting and directing and doing comedy. I was in the ABC and Paramount new talent development program for comedy. And, oh yeah, there was my rock and roll band."
Eventually his wife, Hilary Hemingway, a writer and documentary filmmaker herself (and, yes, the niece of that Hemingway), suggested he concentrate on one thing. "All along it seems like I've been getting gentle hints about writing," Lindsay says. "When I was an actor, somebody came up to me and said, the guy who was writing our new play got sick. Want to do it? And suddenly I was a playwright. And when I was doing comedy, friends would ask me to help write their routines. So suddenly I was a comedy writer. In everything I tried to do, I ended up writing. So finally I said, okay, I get the message."
After the couple moved back to Florida, where both had been born and raised, Lindsay developed a routine of getting up at 4 a.m. and writing until it was time to get his kids ready for school. Lindsay and Hemingway have three daughters, ages 16, 9 and almost 2. Hemingway worked as a television news producer and Lindsay taught a bit at New University, hosted a couple of PBS shows and wrote what he calls "a semi-syndicated newspaper column" on fatherhood. "It started one year when Hilary was producing the evening news and I was home writing," Lindsay says. "Since she left for work before the kids came home from school and got home after they'd gone to bed, I was the only parent around. So it was about the adventures of a tough, super-macho intellectual with two daughters buying the first bra and so on. I think it ran in four papers."
Lindsay's bright moment of inspiration for the first Dexter Morgan novel came at a Kiwanis Club luncheon, where he was the guest speaker. "I was vice president of the Key Club in high school," Lindsay assures BookPage readers, "so I don't have anything against the Kiwanis. But I was sitting there at the head table looking out at the audience getting ready to speak, and the idea just popped into my head that sometimes serial murder isn't a bad thing. I sort of blew off the talk and started scribbling on napkins."
The success of the first book in the series, Lindsay says, allowed the family to stop living week-to-week. "We're now going in six-month chunks," he says wryly. "And that's a big improvement."
But that success also complicated work on his second book, Dearly Devoted Dexter. "Writing at any time is difficult. Because in order to do it you have to leave yourself wide open, which lets in a lot of stuff you don't want to deal with. That's always problematic, dealing with the other stuff and still maintaining focus. I am a total neurotic, so there were times when I was thinking, the first book wasn't very good; why don't I just die? And there were times when I was thinking, how can I write a book as good as the first book? It went back and forth like that."
But now Dearly Devoted Dexter is finished. It's a darn good read. And Jeff Lindsay is hard at work on a third book in the Dexter Morgan series.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.