- 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.’
Vol. 13 No. 15 · 15 August 1991
From Paul Seabright
John Lanchester’s article (LRB, 11 July) about serial killers made particularly interesting reading in the light of Isabel Hilton’s piece in the same issue about what she called ‘the criminal underside of Reagan’s Central America policy’. As Amnesty International routinely reminds us, armies, police forces and secret services around the world employ serial killers in large numbers. It might be comforting to think this reflects simply the efficiency of these institutions at spotting whatever makes serial killers different from you and me (the absence of ‘whatever prevents the majority of us from acting on Nilsen’s “dark images” ’, to use Lanchester’s phrase). But although there must be a degree of self-selection among their personnel, the more likely and more disturbing explanation is that there is something about that kind of work that has, in the appropriate circumstances, the potential to make serial killers of a great many of us. Lanchester says ‘most murders are easy to understand’ and suggests that crimes of passion or greed are ones we can conceive of committing under ‘extremity of circumstances’. But what he finds incomprehensible about serial killing (‘ “stranger-to-stranger” crime, a “relationshipless act”; it has a terrible lightness to it’) describes perfectly the routine and bureaucratic character of much of the murder that governments commit in the name of efficient administration. There must be many people who took part in the bombing of Dresden, or the ‘elimination’ of terrorist suspects, and who have never spent an hour of guilty insomnia even though involvement in a crime of passion might have haunted them for the rest of their lives.
We know a little about the circumstances that make this mental detachment easier to achieve: it helps, for instance, to feel moral distaste for the victim (this, and not just their powerlessness, must be part of the attraction that ‘vagrants, migrant workers, homosexuals’ hold for the classic serial killer). So tales of the atrocities of which the other side is capable prove to be quite effective at enabling us to perpetrate similar acts. This suggests that those of us who do are not simply monsters (who would presumably be relatively unmoved by such tales) but people – perhaps frightened, perhaps dazed, perhaps indignant – with an ability to respond very selectively to the suffering of others.
Here, for instance, is a passage from a recent volume of memoirs by a former British officer in the Malay Police Force, describing an ambush of members of the Malayan Communist Party in the days when there was a quite explicit shoot-to-kill policy: ‘Suddenly the silence of the jungle was broken by his curdling, wailing cries, the screams of a man who knew he was doomed. He was at my mercy; he grappled for his tommy-gun to scythe me down, but I was too quick for him. Gritting my teeth, I fired a salvo from the hip. It was impossible to miss. As the bullets ripped into his body I shouted, “Now cry, you bastard.” ’ And so on and so on. ‘Someone has to help rid the country of the Communists,’ says the author at one point. It would be interesting to know how much of an anomaly John Lanchester would have been conscious of, if he had found such a volume among the pile of books he reviewed.
Churchill College, Cambridge
Vol. 13 No. 18 · 26 September 1991
From John Lanchester
Paul Seabright (Letters, 15 August) writes that ‘armies, police forces and secret services around the world employ serial killers in large numbers.’ True: and what else is new? The actions Dr Seabright writes about – ‘the bombing of Dresden or the “elimination” of terrorist suspects’ – have been usefully described as ‘crimes of obedience’. The prevalence of this type of crime has been one of the salient aspects of the 20th century, but the psychological processes involved are known, familiar ones involving the deliberate cultivation by military institutions of diminished affect and automatic obedience. Every army in the world sets out in its training procedures to produce something very like the ‘mental detachment’ Dr Seabright notices in his ‘routine and bureaucratic’ killers. (Though there is some evidence that this inculcated detachment can wear off: witness the truly astounding fact that more Vietnam veterans committed suicide after that war than GIs were killed during it.) There still seem to me to be some contentful distinctions to be made between a tail-gunner on a plane that participated in the bombing of Dresden and Geoffrey Dahmer, Milwaukee’s cannibal-murderer.