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

‘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.’

The horrifying nature of these statistics is compounded by the case-histories they conceal. Henry Lee Lucas, subject of the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, is currently on death row in Texas. He claims to have murdered 360 people across a range of states in the American South; the Police claim to have verified 160 of these killings: both claims have come under attack as being self-serving, on the grounds that Lucas has been trying to string the Police along to delay his execution for the ten murders of which he has been convicted, and the Police are collaborating in order to reduce the number of unsolved homicides on their books. But the fact that Lucas killed a lot of people is not in doubt – nor are the circumstances of his upbringing. The child of a double amputee and a bootlegging half-Cherokee prostitute, 51 years old at the time of his birth, who used to force him to watch her having sex, Lucas – who lost an eye at the age of seven – was taught how to practise bestiality with freshly-killed animals by his mother’s boyfriend. And so on. Lucas was convicted of his mother’s murder in 1960 and released on parole in 1970, thanks partly to critical overcrowding in the Michigan prison system. He claims to have killed again on the day of his release. (Lucas and Charles Manson, incidentally, were both made to attend their first day at school dressed as girls.)

To read up on serial murders is to sup full of horrors, and also to sup full of explanations. ‘Psychopathic dissociation’, acute, chronic and paranoid schizophrenia, ‘disorders of the hypothalmus’, ‘organic dysfunctions, psychopathological behaviour and social deprivation’, ‘Borderline False Self As If Pseudo-Normal Narcissistic Personality Disorder’ have all been wheeled on as explanations. The science of victimology – which ‘examines victims’ contributions to their own victimisation by evaluating the risk associated with the role of the victim in the crime setting’ – has been consulted. Everybody has a theory. Explanations blur into each other and the only stable fact is that of the crimes themselves.

The consequences of this state of confusion are not purely theoretic. In the Eighties, two serial murderers were caught and tried in this country: both trials pivoted on the clash between psychiatric and legal discourses, and both trials turned into extended displays of virtuoso psychiatrist-bashing. (Both also provided the occasion for first-rate books: on Peter Sutcliffe, Gordon Burn’s Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son and Nicole Ward-Jouve’s The Street-Cleaner; on Dennis Nilsen, Brian Masters’s Killing for Company.) Before the 1981 trial of Peter Sutcliffe for the 13 murders he committed in the North of England between 1975 and 1980, Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney-General, rose to tell the Judge that the Crown was dropping the charge of murder in favour of a guilty plea for manslaughter. Havers said that all the evidence tended towards the conclusion that ‘this is a case of diminished responsibility.’ Mr Justice Boreham replied that he had ‘grave anxiety’ about the plea, and that ‘it would be more appropriate if this case were dealt with by a jury.’

Which it was: and when the case started seven days later, Havers was obliged to conduct an assault on the psychiatric evidence he had already, in the pre-trial process, said that he found convincing. Under our adversarial system, a prosecuting lawyer will always be able to make a defending psychiatrist look ridiculous, and the jury decided that Sutcliffe was not, in the words of the 1957 Homicide Act, ‘suffering from such abnormality of mind as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for the killings’. (In 1984, in the wake of an incident in which he attacked another prisoner for defacing the Sun, Sutcliffe, still apparently suffering a textbook case of paranoid schizophrenia, was transferred to Broadmoor, the prison for the criminally insane.) Dennis Nilsen’s trial, which took place in 1983 for crimes committed between 1978 and 1983, saw a similar, equally unedifying clash of discourses – part of the problem being that the law makes a set of assumptions about free will and volitional action which wholly pre-empt the psychiatric project. As with Sutcliffe, the trial focused entirely on the mental state of the defendant at the time he committed the crimes; as with Sutcliffe, the prosecution lawyers had a field day.

The many similarities between the Sutcliffe and Nilsen cases mask one important difference, however. Sutcliffe’s case acted itself out as a reprise of the case of Jack the Ripper, which has lodged itself so tenaciously in the English folk memory: it was a kind of flashback to Victorian England, set in a similar milieu of urban blight, urban deprivation, prostitution, hypocrisy and misogyny. A substantial part of the country lived in a real sense of dread and horrified expectation as the next murder was awaited: if you were a woman living in the North of England between 1975 and 1980, then Sutcliffe was a figure in your life. But Nilsen’s case was more typical of the contemporary serial murderer: people woke up one morning, opened the newspaper, and discovered that they had been living next door to someone who had killed 15 people, and no one had noticed that the victims were missing. In that sense, Nilsen – eight of whose victims have yet to be identified – was a much more modern serial killer than Sutcliffe.

Tony Parker’s excellent book indirectly offers important insight into the phenomenon of serial murder. As Joel Norris remarks, it is the ‘weight’ of the crime that undoes most murderers – the weight of their guilt, and, in the vast majority of cases, the weight of their ties with the person they have killed. Life after Life, which consists of transcripts of interviews with 12 convicted murderers, is almost unbearably vivid about that feeling: the murderers, dazed and grieving for the most part, have become their own victims.

Serial killers aren’t like that, however. Their crime is a ‘stranger-to-stranger’ crime, a ‘relationshipless’ act: it has a terrible lightness to it, a lightness – and this perhaps is part of the key to the fascination the phenomenon exerts – which has a parodic resemblance to the lightness which characterises our relations with the bulk of people we see every day, with the strangers who surround us. And there is also the fact of incomprehensibility. Most murders are easy to understand; most murders are committed for love (jealousy, hate) or money. Most people, I think, can conceive of the possibility that extremity of circumstances, extremity of mental state, and bad luck, could lead to them being responsible for the taking of someone else’s life. But serial murderers are not comprehensible, by law or psychiatry or even, I would suggest, by the imagination. They stand to remind us that there is literally nothing of which human beings are not capable. There is a kernel of wish-fulfilment in the hold this figure has on the public imagination. He fulfils a general desire to believe that the human psyche is not fully explicable.

Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel, American Psycho, is an attempt to tell the story of a serial murder through a first-person narrative conducted by the murderer himself. The novel has had very bad reviews and quite a lot of publicity, the latter largely because Simon and Schuster first paid a great deal of money for it, then dropped it after some people who worked there objected to passages which described women being tortured and murdered.

The chief technical problem facing Ellis was that of imagining a plausible interior life for his character: it’s a problem he tries to side-step by giving his character, Patrick Bateman, a 27-year-old Wall Street super-yuppie who goes around gruesomely murdering people in his spare time, no internal life at all. Bateman’s head is entirely filled with things like this:

Price seems nervous and edgy and I have no desire to ask him what’s wrong. He’s wearing a linen suit by Canali Milano, a cotton shirt by Ike Behar, a silk tie by Bill Blass and cap-toed leather lace-ups from Brooks Brothers. I’m wearing a lightweight linen suit with pleated trousers, a cotton shirt, a dotted silk tie, all by Valentino Couture, and perforated cap-toe leather shoes by Allen-Edmonds. Once inside Harry’s we spot David Van Patten and Craig McDermott at a table up front. Van Patten is wearing a double-breasted wool and silk sport coat, button-fly wool and silk trousers with inverted pleats by Mario Valentino, a cotton shirt from Gitman Brothers, a polka-dot silk tie by Bill Blass and leather shoes from Brooks Brothers. McDermott is wearing ...

Enough already. There are literally pages and pages of this, and pages and pages of the sort of half-witty, half-bright dialogue and behaviour that goes with it: one repeatedly has the sense that inside this 399-page novel about a serial killer, a 120-page novella about spoilt rich kids in New York is wildly signalling to be let out. (The zonked anomie of these characters is exactly the same as the zonked anomie that everyone displayed in Ellis’s last two novels.) The descriptions of the killings are as inert, and therefore as gratuitous, as one fears they will be.

The killings in Helen Zahavi’s novel Dirty Weekend aren’t like that, partly because the author seems so intensely to approve of them. ‘This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough.’ Having ‘had enough’, Bella starts to go around murdering men, starting with a neighbour who has been victimising her with telephone calls. All the male characters – if that isn’t too strong a word – are unrelievedly vile, and the emotional charge of the book is entirely on Bella’s side; the shock-value of that has to make up for the absence of any other sort of interest. ‘Alas, poor Norman,’ the unidentified narrator muses, shortly before one of the murders. ‘The trouble with academics is that they’re so used to their intimate little bistro dinners, where the bill gets split down the middle and they get fellated for free afterwards, that they forget that in the real world you have to pay. In the real world, where real women try to sell you the only commodity they have, you always have to pay.’

Still, it isn’t quite fair to accuse Zahavi of having tried and failed to write a novel about serial murder: her book is an attempt to write a book which explicitly hates men as much as certain other books implicitly hate women. In that sense, it is an attempt to defamiliarise violence between the sexes and alert one to the way violence against women is routinely used in fiction. Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs is a thriller which achieves similar effects of defamiliarisation by avoiding some of the stock themes of the genre, and by embracing others with a convert’s enthusiasm. For instance, the woman-in-peril motif, which has been widely and justly criticised on the dual grounds of sexism and over-use, is given a new impetus by having as a baddy a serial murderer who not only kills women but who skins them as well. The effect is to make the woman-in-peril actually seem to be a woman in peril: which doesn’t happen often in thrillers.

The real substance – somehow ‘meat’ wouldn’t be the right word – of the book isn’t in the murders and flayings, however, but in the already-famous character of Hannibal Lecter, ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’, a genius psychiatrist, now incarcerated in the deepest available dungeon after having killed and eaten several of his patients. Harris does a very clever thing with Lecter. The bulk of The Silence of the Lambs is meticulous, even finicky, about accuracy. Harris was a former crime reporter for the Press Association, and it shows, in the relish with which he lets us know that ‘the human skin constitutes between 16 and 18 per cent of body weight,’ or when he goes into lepidopteral detail about the kind of moth the killer leaves in the throats of his victims.

Harris has also done his research on serial murderers: his flaying murderer has all sorts of traits and characteristics which come straight out of ‘the literature’ on the phenomenon. (He lures his victims to him by appearing to struggle with a heavy object while wearing a cast on his arm, a detail borrowed from the case of Ted Bundy, who raped and killed women in Seattle and Utah before being caught and sentenced in Florida; while committing his crimes Bundy also wrote a rape crisis manual for Washington state.) For the character of Lecter, however, Harris manages an even better thing than doing his homework: he simply ignores it. Lecter is straightforwardly a monster, bearing no relation to any murderer who ever lived, but achieving an archetypal quality through his brilliance and inexplicability: his mythic quality is as instantly apparent as, say, Sherlock Holmes’s. Perhaps that is because he speaks to what Dennis Nilsen called our being bound together by a collective ignorance of what we are.

My own interest in all of this goes back to the late summer of 1986, when I picked up the newspaper to discover that a school contemporary of mine called Jeremy Bamber was being tried for the murder of his (adoptive) parents, his sister and her two children, aged five and three. The sister had a history of mental disturbance, and Bamber’s plan was to make it look as if she had committed the crime. This would have involved Julie Bamber overpowering her six-foot-plus working-farmer father in a hand-to-hand struggle, as well as shooting her two children as they slept. The Essex Police’s willingness to believe that owed as much to stock ideas about women (in this case, deranged, ‘hysterical’ women) as did the attitudes of the Yorkshire Police who, when Sutcliffe murdered a student, talked of her being his first ‘innocent’ victim.

Most murders, as already mentioned, are committed for love or money. In this instance, it was money: Bamber hated his adoptive parents, wanted their money, didn’t want to wait to inherit it, didn’t want to risk it being given to his sister or her children. He was caught when 1. some of his sister’s relatives, conducting their own search of the farmhouse where the murders occurred, found a silencer which proved that Julie Bamber could not have killed herself, 2. he attracted police attention by going on a spending spree, and 3. his girlfriend turned him in.

For a long time, spurred on by the eagerness with which people used to ask about Bamber when they found out that I had been at school with him, I wanted to write about the case. But I never wrote the piece. Perhaps mistakenly, I didn’t just want to tell a story: I wanted to draw a large general conclusion, and the only large general conclusion I could find was the already-established one that in some people, whatever prevents the majority of us from acting on Nilsen’s ‘dark images’ is simply absent.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 13 No. 15 · 15 August 1991

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.

Paul Seabright
Churchill College, Cambridge

Vol. 13 No. 18 · 26 September 1991

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.

John Lanchester
London SW11

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences