Courting controversy? Are serial killers now a cliché in crime fiction?

It's bothered me for a while.  And when those delightful people at HarperCollins asked me for a guest blog for their Killer Reads site I felt the need to pose the question.  Following a revamp of the site, said guest blog is now posted up.  What do you think?  Please add your comments there.  I'd love to know who feels the same as me and if not, why you disagree…

6 thoughts on “Courting controversy? Are serial killers now a cliché in crime fiction?

  1. Maxine

    I read your post the other day, and think you make good arguments. I think the piece would have been stronger with some examples, but I understand that a publisher website may not want to do that, in case their own books were included or in case it looked as if they were being rude about other publishers!
    For me, there is a class of novel which is written at a very “easy reading” level (often at a reading age suited to a young child); there is a certain predictable structure to the book, rendering it predictable; and the book relies for its “interest” in either describing deaths or in leading up to them. To me this is totally boring and rather as James Patterson has become – cranking books out to a formula, what is the point of reading them if one is going to read nothing fresh or original?
    Some examples of books I have been hard pressed to finish along these lines are American Devil by Oliver Stark, The Surrogate by “Tania Carver” (a well known crime fiction author and his wife) – actually so awful I did not finish this one – and The Calling by Inger Ashe Wolfe. Most of them I don’t even start, as the blurbs are clear warning.
    For me, deaths and murders are not interesting intrinsically. What is interesting is the disruption to a group or person or society that results – as, luckily, many very good authors know well. (And always have done, if one looks back at the novels that have stood the test of time.)

  2. Martin Edwards

    Rhian, I’m broadly in agreement with you and Maxine. The problem with serial killer stories is that they can become formulaic, and rely on the shock factor with ever more gory forms of murder. Some good books of this kind have been written, but it’s a bit played-out, in my opinion. However, just as there is always room for, say, a great new spin on the old ‘locked room’ theme, there’s certainly scope for serial killer stories that avoid all or most of the cliches.

  3. L C Tyler

    Like amateur detectives, serial killers are more common in fiction than in the real world. Put like that, you could argue that the serial killer is just another convention that takes the plot forward. The problem, as we all seem to agree, is that multiple deaths become predictable and don’t make for an original story line – however much or little gore is involved. By the time we reach the third or fourth body there’s a danger that we don’t really care one way or the other. That said, serial killing can be done well – for example R J Ellory’s A Quiet Belief in Angels (to name one recent read). It doesn’t have to be clichéed.

  4. Bobbye Terry

    Just came across this and had to comment. Serial killers hit the news all the time. They’re in society and for them not to show up in books would be, well, not reality. However, having said that, what is the motive behind the killings and does the whole story pivot on the killer him or herself on on another much more important topic, such as what war is going on within each of the main characters.
    For instance, I just sold a book with a serial killer in it to small indie press. The book is about so much more than the killer, but he is used as a means to bring the main characters to grips with the inner conflicts they face. Only by being placed in jeopardy, even possibly losing someone who is very dear to them both, does the full reality of their unresolved past come to light and they can heal in each other’s protective arms.
    My two cents,
    Bobbye Terry
    Book debuting in mid-2011: Coming to Climax

  5. Sean McDue

    Has anyone heard of the documentary Burke and Hare the Body Merchants? I would like to see it and was wondering if it was similar to the recent Burke and Hare (2010) movie.

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