Sunday, September 23, 2012

Serial Killer Soup: I've Had My Fill

What do you get when you cross a serial killer novel with a spree killer novel? Oh, you think they're the same thing? Don't tell that to Paul Cleave who would like you to believe that they are not. His latest thriller The Laughterhouse is supposedly about a spree killer, but his murderer on the loose behaves exactly like your stock serial killer plucked from the pages of any contemporary thriller written in the last fifteen years. In all honesty I expected to loathe this book. I didn't. But I didn't love it either.

First off, the book has been stripped of all it's New Zealand color for an American audience. What is normally called the boot of a car has been changed to trunk, the bonnet of a car is now a hood. This kind of dumbing down irks me. The characters even refer to their money as bucks! I know the Kiwi currency is the dollar but do they really use American slang? There isn't anything in my edition that gives me a sense of Christchurch at all. The diner is even a ripoff of American culture as is the food. It was very strange. Was that part of Cleave's idea in this book. That New Zealand is no different than our crime ridden vulgar pop culture obsessed U S of A? No. Turns out  there is another culprit. A quick email to Paul Cleave verified the changes were made at the insistence of his American publisher.  Why am I not surprised?

What I do like is Cleave's unabashed, in your face, grisly descriptions of violence. He doesn’t hold back and he doesn't play favorites among his characters. If you're going to write a book like this you can't censor yourself or treat it palatably. I also like his sardonic sense of humor. But does everyone in the book have to exhibit that humor? After a while everyone started to sound the same. Even an 11 year old girl turns smart ass when she calls the murderer a "perv" and insults him like a cynical 20-something with lines like this one to her 8 year-old sister: "Deluded. See, Katy. I struck a nerve." It's a little too much to expect from even the most precocious child to be that sassy in the face of a man who has just bound her and is planning to stab her multiple times.

This book is like a soup made from every leftover in the refrigerator of a lazy cook. Chop it up, throw it in, stir it up, let simmer for over 400 pages. A little goes a long way, my friends.

Apart from the serial/spree killer there's series character Theo Tate, an ex-cop turned private eye trying to get over a "personal tragedy." I haven't read any of the other books that came before this but it didn't matter. One book's entire plot is discussed at length including giving away the ending so I felt like I've read at least two of Cleaves' books now. In addition, there is the ego-maniacal psychic Jonas Jones who wants to collaborate with the police. Through utterly contrived plot mechanics the killer also consults psychics on a regular basis hoping that one day he'll meet someone with genuine paranormal abilities. Sometimes the book with everything is a taste sensation, but in this case it's just flavor overload.

And so I have to ask – why? This subgenre has truly been exhausted. We already have a serial killer who is in love with her policeman nemesis (the books of Chelsea Cain) and a serial killer who kills criminals who have escaped the law (Dexter) among the many hundreds of variations, each one usually labeled "daring" and "original"by fawning critics. Is writing about a spree killer any more original? Especially one who doesn’t behave like a genuine spree killer but instead behaves like a stock fictional serial killer. And after what happened in Colorado at the Batman premiere can anyone truly say that crime fiction about spree killing is a legitimate form of entertainment?

There is an audience for this kind of book but more and more I am discovering that I do not count myself among these readers. The combination of excess, gross-out violence and the pop psychology pat answers to a killer's behavior have really worn out their welcome with me.

10 comments:

  1. I commend your perseverance! Going by your review, I would've shoved this to the side of my plate after a few nibbles.

    ReplyDelete
  2. There are thousands of country house/ village GAD mysteries with stock characters as well but we love to read them.

    I have no problem with serial killers theme of murders if done well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My real problem with modern books these days is turgid length. Tell the story and do it without all these extra characters and tangental incidents. This was in essence a revenge story pure and simple. In real life the story would've taken only a few days to transpire but we get all these sidetracked details and backstory from a previous book that continually impede the real action. I think these kinds of stories can be improved by being more compactly told. Personal taste, of course.

      Delete
  3. I am not much of a fan of the serial killer trope, like you I believe it has truly been played out in fiction as well as film and TV. The New Zealand setting is clearly what would have made this more worthwhile so your frustration with the changes imposed by the publisher is somethign I share completely. I'm not sure if real-life tragedies change people's perceptions about this kind of thing or ultimately feed the habit by tapping into some atavistic impulses. I do know that I would probably be interested to read about the Colorado lawsuit being brought by the families not against the perpetrator but againt the cinema itself - what that implies (that this was somehow a predictable outcome and that security at a cinema screening of a big budget comic book movie should have been set up for such a contingency) is truly scary - what would the John grisham version of that sory be like?

    ReplyDelete
  4. PS - TYPOS ALERT! That should read:

    "John Grisham version of that story be like?"

    ReplyDelete
  5. I hate it when changes are made to non-American books to make the story more palatable to American readers. It's as if publishers don't believe that we've ever read a foreign-set book, seen a foreign movie, visited a foreign country, or--gasp!--had a foreign friend. Hey publishers--give us credit for either knowing or being able to deduce non-American references and terms.

    On the other hand, some non-American writers don't always "get" America (contemporary or historical) either. I recently finished an English mystery which involved an American character who had been the product if an interracial marriage in North Dakota where his black father and white mother ran a local rural pharmacy in the 1950s. I'm thinking if the writer understood American racial history, he would have known how unlikely that situation would have been!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I also dislike books writen by non-Americans with American characters speaking dialog that is definitely not American. Or getting slang and regionalisms wrong - even American writers do this.

      We expect too much authenticity from our writers now, I think. That's why I really disliked the "Americanization" of this book set in New Zealand. I had the same problem with some books by a Dutch writer whose books were written and set in the 1970s yet there was talk of Euros as currency and a telex machine was called a fax machien. What's the point of that? It's insulting to the reader really.

      Delete
  6. Although I quite liked Silence of the Lambs I think Hannibal Lecter was the worst thing that ever happened to the serial killer sub-genre and thus we're still being forced to endure fifth-rate knockoffs to this day. As for overly padded crime/mystery fiction I'm glad to see someone else ranting about that one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree, Bill! Last week I read an insightful review of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS at another mystery blog with some observations I'd never come across before, but basically my response was the same thing as what you wrote above: "Sometimes I wish Harris never wrote this book. I feel he is solely responsible for the deluge of serial killer novels we are now drowning in. A sad bloodsoaked drowning it is, too, with each new “twist” only showing what secret perversions live in the dark imaginations of writers whose work seems only to exist in order to top one another in terms of the grotesque and the taboo."

      Delete
    2. Totally agree with the quote. What was Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but the perverse mind of an author?

      Delete

This is not a message board. It is a blog where we can discuss vintage mystery and supernatural fiction. Please confine your comments to the post or vintage books and their authors. Any other remarks will be deleted. If you want to address me personally about anything other than the post, send me an email. The email link is found on my Profile page.