Portrait of a Serial Killer

I suppose it’s unavoidable that the majority of serial killer thrillers and mysteries tend to feature the same kind of killer: a depraved murdered with some variety of attendant twists (a fondness for eating his victims, turning their skin into lampshades, getting intimate with their corpses, murdering them in unsettling ways, etc). At the end of the day (or book), these killers blur into the same person. There’s nothing that inventive about them. Oh, one of them might be a supposed devout Christian (always an easy, lazy and fond target) or a white supremacist or a whatnot or a whosit.

But they’re all essentially the same.

Writers of these books must feel compelled to create the most horrific protagonist as possible. After all, they have to shock and compel and carve their name on the genre so readers are inspired to talk about their books to others. “That Hannibal Lecter fellow…” I understand their motivation. I think it unfortunate. It reminds me of the old Soviet-era grocery stores I visited in Eastern Europe: one brand of bread on the shelves, one brand of canned peas…

The problem is, like taking drugs, the high becomes less and less attainable, the more you use. The reader becomes numb over time. Which is one of several reasons why we’ve moved into an era of heroes being just as repulsive as their corresponding villains.

This problem got me thinking recently about the character of the Serial Killer in fiction. Not all of such villains need to be the next Jack the Ripper. I think a blander sort of fellow would be much more terrible in the long run. An acceptable, educated, polished person. An unassuming cog in the machine.

This brings us to Desmond Phipps…

Portrait of a Serial Killer

“Our office has one more suggestion, said Desmond Phipps.

“Yes?” said the chairman.

Phipps cleared his throat and pretended to consult his notes. He was a short, bespectacled man with thinning blond hair and a weak chin that he tried to conceal behind a goatee.

“Dr. Ralston Reed and Dr. George Patterson,” he said, “both statisticians at Princeton, recently published a paper analyzing vehicle speeds on all classifications of roads: highways, city streets, residential, high density urban, rural areas, and how they relate to emissions and climate change. One of the key points they make for the purposes of our discussion is that increasing speed limits within certain ranges reduces carbon emissions due to the improvements in modern engine efficiencies.”

“Increasing the limits by how much?” said the woman sitting three seats down the table.

Phipps didn’t bother looking at her. Melissa Hart. She was the senior aide to the senator from Wyoming and sometimes wore cowboy boots. Her voice sounded like a blender grinding up rocks. Almost certainly a smoker. She was probably was more accustomed to riding a horse than driving a car. He doubted whether someone like her had the intelligence to be on the staff committee for updating national road standards.

“Up to ten miles per hour more for average highway speeds that are still at sixty or below,” said Phipps, “for a national average of seventy. Urban and residential areas would only need an increase of five. The adjustment in urban and residential actually has a bigger impact than the change in highway speed. Viewed on a driver-by-driver basis, these increases really are small, but it’s the small things that count. Collectively, these modifications would result in an annual reduction of six point nine billion tons of carbon emissions at current population levels.”

There was a brief moment of silence as the committee considered this.

“What about school zones?” said someone at the far end of the table.

“School zones would certainly be an exception,” said Phipps quickly. “My senator feels very strongly about education.”

“Did they analyze what their proposal would mean for traffic accidents?” said Hart.

Witch, thought Phipps to himself. “Of course. They calculate a slight increase in mortality from the current level to an additional one per every two hundred thousand. That’s statistically irrelevant.”

“But not irrelevant for that one person,” said Hart sarcastically.

“Per every two hundred thousand,” said the man sitting across from Phipps. He scribbled quickly on his notepad. “Let’s see… point zero zero zero five percent. For a carbon reduction of six point nine billion tons? That’s quite a nice return. I wish my investment portfolio was doing that well.”

Except for Hart, everyone at the table laughed.

“I think Minnesota could get behind this,” said an elegant blonde at the end of the table. “Climate change is polling strongly in our area, even ahead of jobs and immigration, and it is an election year.”

“Any issue you can tie to climate change is a slam-dunk in California,” said another staffer. “Sea levels, kids with emphysema or asthma–hell, find some bald kid with cancer, even if it has nothing to do with climate. Throw in a couple pictures of cute polar bears or dolphins, my boss loves this stuff when she’s out campaigning.”

“Minority kids in wheelchairs,” said someone else. “They’re gold. Do some photo ops with them and you can sit back and watch the polls bounce.”

There were several nods in response. Phipps relaxed in his chair. He didn’t allow himself to smile. He would do that later. In private.

“Alright then,” said the chairman, looking at his watch. “It sounds like we’ve got some pretty good consensus. We’ll add this emissions reductions plan to the list. I’ll have my staff type up the revisions and email them tonight. The EPA will get a copy too. They can come on board early and get their press releases ready. I trust you’ll all brief your senators before the new safety standards go public. Boil it down to talking points so they’ve got a good grasp of what they’re supposed to say.”

“If they ever get asked,” said someone.

Everyone laughed. Even Hart smiled sourly.

Phipps took the train home late in the evening. A sleek white cat met him at the door. It purred and rubbed against his ankles. Phipps opened a can of cat food and dumped it neatly into a blue ceramic bowl. The cat promptly began to eat in neat little bites. Phipps heated up a plate of leftover fettuccine for himself and poured a glass of white wine.

Point zero zero zero five times three hundred and fifty million… No. Point zero zero zero five percent of the population.

He did the math quickly in his head.

“One thousand, seven hundred and fifty, Bella,” he said to the cat. “What do you think of that?”

The cat ignored him.

A chalkboard hung on the side of the refrigerator. It had a long list of numbers, dates and initials on it. He added 1,750 to the list, along with the date and NRSS for National Road and Safety Standards.

He took a sip of wine and finally allowed himself a smile.

“Not bad at all, Bella. And the hearings on trade with China begin tomorrow. Electronics. Electronics have lots of potential, Bella, particularly devices children use. Chemicals, pottery, glass. Toys. Pencils, paper goods. All the everyday small things. It’s always the small things you have to pay attention to.”

The cat stared at him for a moment and then resumed eating its dinner.

“Of course,” said Phipps, “who’s paying attention?” He smiled again.


7 thoughts on “Portrait of a Serial Killer

  1. We’ve been in Glipwood of late and the Fangs of Dang are the most gruesome serial killers my 10 year old and I have come across. Although they don’t fall into your bland profile for villains, they keep our imaginations firing. I find more joy and enrichment out of reading aloud with my son than wading into modern fiction in any genre. Though I did enjoy ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ which parallels Glipwood’s fantasy world as once again children struggle to come to terms with the forces of evil in their world while adults offer little resistance or capitulate completely.

    • Those are very fun books. I read them a while back, and I certainly enjoyed them much more than the vast dark sea of darkness that masquerades as readable fiction today (I seem to be turning into a cranky old “get off my lawn” critic these days). My ten year old hasn’t read them yet, but I’m sure he’ll love them. He’s currently in Jim Bowie-Alamo-Texas mode, with occasional forays into WWI and WWII history. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Andrew Peterson and a couple ex-Veggie Tales people are currently turning part of that series into an animated film. I haven’t read All the Light, but I will now.

  2. I’ll watch for the film! We’ve listened to some of his music. My oldest son was the Jim Bowie fan at age 10 which aligns well with his choice of college: New Mexico Military Institute where they get to wear camouflage in class and crawl over obstacles in their free time.

    • Just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See. Very enjoyable. I love the sprawling plot lines weaving together. Great characters. I’m still wondering about the end and what he’s saying (or, I think he’s saying) about purpose in life. Seemed to end in a sort of gentle, wistful despair.

      • Please explain from an author’s perspective what he’s saying! Yes – sprawling plot lines slowly intertwine- I like that sort of novel. Friends found the end unsatisfactory, but it piqued my curiosity and left me pondering… What is he saying? Answer please!

        • Sorry I’m so late in responding. Life, etc…

          My guess? I’m still not sure. I would think that Doerr would’ve chosen to explain his perspective through one or both of the main characters. That’s not always true in all books, but it seems reasonable to say so for All the Light.

          Anyway, Werner has just a couple defining moments in his character arc: discovery of radios as a child, his choice to not stand up for his friend Freddie during his military academy training, his choice not to reveal the location of Marie-Laure in Saint-Malo, and his choice to walk away from the hospital (which seems to be a choice to die, suicide, if looked at practically). That said, choosing to not reveal Marie-Laure’s location seems like an attempt to redeem himself, but it is badly blurred by his suicide at the end of his part of the story. Begs the question: what’s the point? Is there some kind of larger truth, or absolute, pointed to here? Not that I can tell.

          Then, Marie-Laure’s character. She makes some brave choices after her father is captured, but I always have to circle around to the “what’s the point?” question. For her, what’s the point–mind you, not “what’s the point” for the reader and our larger sense of the world, life, history, etc. For Marie-Laure, she’s choosing bravery and selflessness, but her end in the story is rather telling to me: “She listens until his footsteps fade. Until all she can hear are the sighs of cars and the rumble of trains and the sounds of everyone hurrying through the cold.”

          That’s a very deliberate way to end a main character’s arc: “…everyone hurrying through the cold.” I can’t interpret that in any encouraging fashion. To me, it feels like nihilism, if anything. As a writer, I spent a great deal of time deliberating over the end of my Tormay trilogy. I wanted to circle around on specific themes in the last chapter that had very precise meanings. That said, I just can’t see a writer (a relatively serious writer–he won the Pulitzer, didn’t he?) not thinking carefully through the meanings of their last sentences.

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