The Silence of the Lame: Serial Killers Aren’t ‘Evil Geniuses’
When I was a teenager, I read a lot of serial killer literature. In the 1990s, such novels dominated the bestseller lists; you couldn’t walk into a bookstore without spying titles by Dean Koontz, Thomas Harris, Patricia Cornwell, and their contemporaries on the front shelves.
These novels featured familiar characters moving on well-worn tracks. Usually, a genius serial killer with a very unusual modus operandi killed a rapidly escalating number of victims. A detective (often tortured, thanks to a traumatic childhood, or a bad marriage, or a dead loved one…) hunted the killer using some unorthodox technique. As the killer rushed to complete some sort of “grand plan,” the detective closed in, with a cat-and-mouse climax taking place in some remote location (without the possibility of backup, at least until a properly deus ex machina moment).
The serial-killer subgenre isn’t dead; I recently finished reading Meg Gardiner’s “Unsub,” which I thought executed on the necessary tropes rather well. That being said, the fictional serial killer has become a somewhat passé creature, and many agents and publishers pass on manuscripts in which they lurk. Even Thomas Harris, the man who kicked off so many of the subgenre’s trends with his novels featuring elegant cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter, has elected to focus on something completely different in his next book.
Interest in real-life serial killers, meanwhile, seems to be on something of an upswing. Netflix recently released “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” a four-episode review of Ted Bundy’s ignoble career as a serial killer (and, eventually, true-crime celebrity). It joins an upcoming feature film, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” in which Zac Efron plays Bundy.
Watching the Bundy documentary, I had a revelation. To boil it down to one sentence: Ted Bundy was a moron.
In the three decades since Bundy died in the electric chair, he’s developed a reputation as a serial killer’s serial killer, an evil genius who seamlessly evaded detection while carrying out his murders with expert precision. Nothing could be further from the truth: he was impulsive and sloppy, and his…