Friday, 21 December 2007

The decline of the serial killer?

When I interviewed Minette Walters recently, she mentioned her interest in ‘true crime’. It's an interest shared by many writers of crime fiction. Minette's belief that the success of criminal profilers had led to serial killers being identified much more quickly nowadays than in the past, with the result that serial killers tended not to elude detection for too long. She suggested that we have moved from the era of the serial killer to the spree killer (such as Michael Ryan, the Hungerford killer, and many others who have achieved their 15 minutes of fame by a quick burst of senseless destruction before killing themselves.)

I don’t know whether the statistics support this thesis, but I share Minette’s interest in the work and writing of David Canter, whom I got to know after his appointment as Professor of Psychology at the University of Liverpool. He won the CWA’s non-fiction Gold Dagger for Criminal Shadows, and his 2003 book Mapping Murder is equally thoughtful. It’s a book about ‘geographical profiling’ and the central thesis is that criminals reveal who they are and where they live, not just from how they commit their crimes, but also from the locations they choose. Never mind if you are inclined to be sceptical about profiling (many people are – I once attended a very witty debunking of profilers at a CWA conference in Durham), it is fascinating read.

One thing is for sure, though. Even if serial killers are less common these days in real life, a visit to any bookshop will show that they are as popular as ever with crime writers. And, so far as I can tell, with the majority of crime readers.

4 comments:

Xavier said...

Even if serial killers are less common these days in real life, a visit to any bookshop will show that they are as popular as ever with crime writers. And, so far as I can tell, with the majority of crime readers.

Well, not this one.
Serial killers have never been that common, it's just media frenzy that makes them look more widespread than they actually are.

Martin Edwards said...

Xavier, I confess to having created one or two serial criminals myself. But - I do have some sympathy for the argument that the vogue for serial killings has gone a bit too far. There is a respectable view that holds that one murder is plenty for a crime novel. I've heard Robert Barnard, a great Christie fan, say that 'second murders are always vulgar', and his words invariably command respect, although that particular opinion isn't one I wholly agree with.

Liesbeth said...

"I've heard Robert Barnard, a great Christie fan, say that 'second murders are always vulgar'"

He must hate 'Then there were none';-)

Martin Edwards said...

Good point, Liesbeth! I suppose none of us who venture into the area of criticism finds it easy to be consistent 100% of the time!