My fictional crimes aren’t too elaborate. Your basic murders, assaults, extortion, theft, and drugs. The usual. I’ve only written one serial killer—in a book yet to see the light of day. My other killers do it for a reason. It may not be a reason you or I would agree with, but it was sufficient to motivate them.
I don’t care for serial killer stories. Like most writers, I write the kinds of stories I like to read, and I like to read stories that are, you know, believable? Not that serial killers don’t exist; they’re not criminal masterminds, taunting the police with increasingly revealing clues. No Hannibal Lectors out there. Just sick, disgusting men who prey on the weak and unsuspecting.
Laura Lippman said something at Bouchercon about serial killer stories as the cozies of the 21st Century. Her reasoning was—and I’m paraphrasing—serial killer stories are like roller coasters: they titillate and scare, but we know nothing like this is going to happen to us. (Not in a realistic, actuary-measurable sense.) What scares her is what takes place not too far from her home in Baltimore. That shit actually happens.
Raymond Chandler wrote: “[Dashiell] Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.” Chandler referred to Hammett’s breaking away from the traditional British mystery; the parallels to today’s serial killers are clear. They kill for no other reason than they want to; driven to, perhaps, but that’s an extreme level of the same thing. Fictional serial killers also have intricate methods and rituals that serve mostly to help the cops catch them. True, real serial killers have their own signatures; have you ever heard of one with the elaborateness of Kevin Spacey in Seven?
Killing is a dirty, venial business, overwhelmingly performed by dirty, venial people, the act born of greed, lust, or anger. Killers get caught because of things they didn’t think of, or didn’t do right, or because they got tricked. Often as not, they get caught because they’re fuck-ups. They’ve done something extraordinary—killed another human being—and they have to tell someone. Or they did it for money and can’t resist flashing it around. Or—my favorite—they do their woman wrong, either by treating her like shit, or trading up to a younger, flashier model. Note to crooks: women hate that. A lot of guys are in jail because an ex or soon to be ex ratted them out.
Not many get caught with space age CSI stuff, either. They may get convicted with it, but first the cops need someone to match the DNA to. This may change if DNA databases become as detailed and broad-based as fingerprints—or not, if turnaround times don’t improve; it’s not like that now. Security cameras on every corner? Maybe in Washington DC; not in Penns River, Pennsylvania. That shit costs.
Murders are committed by people; people solve them. It’s the people—good and bad—who need to be interesting, far more than the crimes. Otherwise the type of crime escalates until no one is willing to suspend disbelief. After a while the constant one-upmanship drives even devoted fans looking for something with a little rationality. (This may be happening now in the serial killer field.)
It’s not a random person who might want to kill me I worry about; it’s the people who are willing to kill me to get what they want. That’s who I write about.