Strangers

John Lanchester

  • Serial Murder: An Elusive Phenomenon edited by Stephen Egger
    Praeger, 250 pp, £33.50, October 1990, ISBN 0 275 92986 8
  • Serial Killers by Joel Norris
    Arrow, 333 pp, £4.99, July 1990, ISBN 0 09 971750 6
  • Life after Life by Tony Parker
    Pan, 256 pp, £4.50, May 1991, ISBN 0 330 31528 5
  • American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
    Picador, 399 pp, £6.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 330 31992 2
  • Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi
    Macmillan, 185 pp, £13.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 333 54723 3
  • Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
    Mandarin, 366 pp, £4.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 7493 0942 3

‘I was always surprised and truly amazed that anyone could be attracted by the macabre,’ Dennis Nilsen, the biggest multiple killer in British criminal history, has remarked. He went on:

The population at large is neither ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’. They seem to be bound together by a collective ignorance of themselves and what they are. They have, every one of them, got their deep dark thoughts with many a skeleton rattling in their secret cupboards. Their fascination with ‘types’ (rare types) like myself plagues them with the mystery of why and how a living person can actually do things which may be only those dark images and acts secretly within them. I believe they can identify with these ‘dark images and acts’ and loathe anything which reminds them of this dark side of themselves. The usual reaction is a flood of popular self-righteous condemnation but a willingness to, with friends and acquaintances, talk over and over again the appropriate bits of the case.

The interest so upsetting to Nilsen – the dog-loving, Guardian-reading Job Centre bureaucrat and former policeman who killed and dismembered 15 men – seems to be at an all-time high. There is a particular fascination with people like Nilsen: that is to say, with serial killers, who apart from featuring in the books under review, and the film which has had the top box-office receipts on both sides of the Atlantic, have recently provided the material for works by artists as different from each other as P.D. James, DV8 Physical Dance Theatre and David Lynch.

Stephen Egger, an American academic and former policeman who wrote the first doctoral dissertation on the phenomenon, gives a definition/description of serial murder in Serial Murder: An Elusive Phenomenon:

A serial murder occurs when one or more individuals (males, in most known cases) commit a second murder and/or subsequent murder; is relationshipless (no prior relationship between victim and attacker); is at a different time and has no apparent connection to the initial murder; and is usually committed in a different geographical location. Further, the murder is not for material gain and is believed to be for the murderer’s desire to have power over his victims. Victims may have symbolic value and are perceived to be prestigeless and in most instances are unable to defend themselves or alert others to their plight, or are perceived as powerless given their situation in time, place or status within their immediate surroundings (such as vagrants, migrant workers, homosexuals, missing children, and single and often elderly women).

Part of the interest in these people and their acts, and their prevalence in works of fiction and drama, can no doubt be ascribed to the simple fact that while other frightening things like werewolves, vampires and ghosts are now widely held not to exist, serial murderers certainly do. The essays edited by Egger (not all of which are as execrably written as that passage) and Serial Killers, the energetic but infuriatingly sloppy book by a psychologist called Joel Norris, could hardly be more alarming about the extent of the phenomenon. Norris cites an unspecified report from the FBI to the effect that, in 1983, ‘approximately five thousand Americans of both sexes and all ages – 15 people a day and fully 25 per cent of all murder victims – were struck down by murderers who did not know them and killed them for the sheer “high” of the experience.’ A sober assessment in Egger’s collection points out that in 1987, by FBI statistics, there were 20,096 criminal homicides in the USA, a rate of 8.3 per 100,000 of the population; ‘the number of stranger-to-stranger homicides was in excess of 2649 and not more than 5948. The number within this group committed by the serial murderer is unknown.’

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