It has been nearly impossible for anyone traveling L.A. streets or reading this newspaper to avoid seeing ads for this Sunday's season premiere of Showtime's "Dexter." Many of the ads show Michael C. Hall, the actor who plays Dexter Morgan, sporting his trademark demonic grin while holding a cherubic baby. Both baby and serial killer are spattered with red liquid, the "joke" being that it isn't clear whether the liquid is juice or blood.
For fans of such "humor," Jeff Lindsay's new novel, "Dexter by Design," will surely be an enjoyable cup of congealed and gory tea. For others, this book is about as pleasant as a sewer swim, and just about as socially rewarding.
By day a mild-mannered blood-spatter expert for the Miami Police Department, Dexter spends his free time butchering other serial killers. As in the previous books, Dexter narrates his new story with the same giddy pride, snap judgments and snide humor of a narcissistic teen.
Sort of Hannibal Lecter Lite, with the taste of John Waters and the good looks of Ted Bundy, Dexter is proud of his "giant brain," and he often refers to himself in the third person ("Dashing Dexter," "Dexter of the Deadly Dimples," "Dexter the Magnificent"). Dexter loves the art and act of murder most tawdry and is eager to share his enthusiasm with like-minded perverts.
"Dexter by Design" starts with our hero on his honeymoon in Paris, suffering his own version of hell. Dexter, who admits to being "sick and twisted," with an inability to feel love or most other human emotions, is barely tolerant of his new wife, Rita, who is clueless to her husband's hobbies. Alas, marriage is just another accommodation Dexter makes to appear normal -- a new layer of fabrication required to hide his dark soul and darker deeds. "The honeymoon had strained my imitations of polite behavior beyond all their previous limits," our sociopathic hero admits, "and I was ready to slither back into the shadows and polish my fangs."
Happily for him and horrifically for the reader, Dexter's marriage comes with two little bonuses -- Rita's children, Cody and Astor. Dexter intuits the children's nascent serial-killing abilities, and he commits himself to leading them "into the sunless land of wicked pleasure" where they will become "Dexter's Disciples." Dexter wants only the best for his new kids, which means becoming a "well-adjusted, smoothly functioning monster."
The designs of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert on his stepdaughter, Lolita, seem downright admirable by comparison. Even for a character as creepy as Dexter, his behavior and self-justification regarding the "little predators" carries the unsettling stench of pedophilia. It will be fascinating to see how far Lindsay pushes this premise in later works.
With customary, almost sexual relief, Dexter returns to Florida to hunt down and murder a serial killer on the loose. This particular monster arranges his victims in grisly murder tableaux. Bodies are scooped out and filled with fruit, Champagne; headless bodies appear surrounded by Florida tourist paraphernalia. Dexter is no prude: Murder and mutilation don't upset him; it is the garish style of corpse desecration that offends him. Later in the book, as he sniffs about photographs of the dead, he says of them that they were "really not very interesting. You could probably call them clever, but no more. They lacked any real originality and seemed rather lifeless -- even for dead bodies."
When the killer targets Dexter's sister Deborah and Dexter's new family, he must find the killer first. While Dexter's abominations have always been limited to killing those who need killing, the new book hints at Dexter's growing sentimentality. Rest assured, however, that like everything else, Dexter's actions are warped by the most odious of motives. Though not actually a servant of the justice system, Dexter is the bringer of natural justice, an anal-compulsive version of Dirty Harry or Charles Bronson's character in "Death Wish," dispensing not with just legal technicalities but with the entire notion of mortality and ethics.
It would, of course, be prudish yet true to note that the Dexter books are a celebration of the banality of evil. They trivialize the taking of life and come as close to meeting the legal definition of obscenity as anything I've read in years: They are prurient and lacking in all redeeming social value.
But give the devil his due. Lindsay's serial-killer killer is a great gimmick. His books make money and adapt well to television. Like a pornographer, he's entitled to earn a living like anyone else. But what are we to make of the many fans of such snuff?
At worst, their enjoyment represents a death-based voyeurism and sadistic wish fulfillment that ought to give one pause. At best, they are just living in a society where killing other humans is a fun theme for mindless entertainment, a romp that turns notions like "Thou shalt not kill" into the punch line of a joke. Dexter's victims aren't just other serial killers; they're also his fans.