Is the serial killer now a cliché? Rhian Davies investigates…

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I first said it in 2007: I am all serial killered out.  There’s only so much you can do with this type of criminal in crime fiction it’s all too easy to fall into cliché territory.  However, before I continue, I should add that I have read novels in the last year that have involved a serial killer and they’ve been good ones – because they avoided the cliché.  One concentrated on the impact on the lives of those who suffered loss at the hands of the evil and manipulative killer; the other looked at the role the internet and digital communication can play in spreading news and misleading information, including the cult of celebrity as applied to a serial killer.

So what makes the cliché?  These are the novels that rely on a chase, a narrative with pace, increasingly gruesome murders, a profile and a profiler, a slaughtering acceleration and a slip up on the part of the killer to bring about resolution.  And oh, the profile.  Yes, the profile.  You might find, like me, that you can write your own now.

Subject is a white male, likely to be between the ages of 18 and 45.  He may hold down a relatively low profile job, but it will allow him a flexible schedule.  Something will have triggered the start of his killing spree; possibly the death of his mother.  He was unnaturally cruel to small animals when very young and disrespectful to girls when in his teens.

Go on, write your own, you know you can.  That one took mere minutes.  (I had to do a little research.)  But I did leave out skinning rabbits.  Thus we have the fictional serial killer profile checklist.  Writers who want to capitalise on this with some originality simply tick the boxes down the other side of the list.  Enter: the female serial killer.  Enter: the high IQ, high performing corporate executive.  Enter: the one who is simply taking out all those he/she has a grudge against and loving every slasher moment.  Enter: the many who now slaughter their way through the UK.  (Why, oh why?  We have so few of them in reality that imagination comes across as delusions of hauteur.)

Recently, I vocalised my gripes only to receive the reply ‘But they sell’.  Perhaps it’s an age thing, as I read many such tomes in the 90s.  Now they just seem so derivative.  Oh, how I long for one of these serial killers to leap off the page into real life just so I can declare ‘Hey, Mr Serial Killer, please crawl back under your stone as you bore me so much.’

If an author finds an original take on this one, they may well capture me.  But it is unlikely to state ‘serial killer’ on the cover…

Rhian Davies runs the popular crime fiction blog It’s a Crime (or a Mystery…) at http://itsacrime.typepad.com and her Twitter page is @crimeficreader

9 thoughts on “Is the serial killer now a cliché? Rhian Davies investigates…

  1. Rhian, I agree the vast majority of murders are committed by the victims partner or ex-partner. Why scare people with thoughts of serial killers running round killing at random, when it is your husband, or wife, or civil partner checking out your life insurance and reading up on poisons.

  2. Rhian – You’re right, I think, that the serial killer has become so popular and such a seller that there now seems to be a “recipe” for a serial killer novel. There are very few novels out there that feature that kind of killer that are also truly well-written and engaging and memorable. They’re there, and I admire writers who can make such novels haunting. But it isn’t easy…

  3. I don’t think I’m as well-read in the crime arena as you, so it’s hard for me to say it’s overdone. However, the way you put it, it certainly sounds like the serial killer trope is becoming a bit of a cliche. For me, it’s about how it’s handled. In the hands of a Minette Walters, or a Ruth Rendell, I’d probably still read a novel about a serial killer.

  4. YES! Thanks for posting this.

    The serial killer is not just a cliche, it’s downright boring. Although some books include a person who kills multiple times (i.e., first they kill someone, then the kill someone else who figured it out), that’s not the boring kind. It’s the James Patterson-influenced, how gruesome can this murder get, that immediately turns me away. Because the plot is cliched, I guess the authors are trying to differentiate themselves by how they stalk and kill the beautiful (female) victims.

    Please. Stop.

  5. Rhian, I haven’t read that many serial killer books but there does seem to be loads of them out there!They’re usually abit icky,too, I think.
    Isn’t it just a way to pad out a book ?

  6. Yeah, sounds like a problem if you read a lot of that — where’s the new beef? It gives me pause to think because in a book I want to write in the near future, I want to bring in a serial killer. Of course, as I hate being like everyone else, the first thing I think of is how can it be different and told in a way that’s not the norm. Having never read any crime fiction revolving around a serial killer, it might be easy for me to fall into this cliche trap. I’ll have to do my research. Thanks for the advice.

  7. I’ve thought this for some time. I don’t know how some of these writers sleep at night. I wouldn’t like to be married to one of them, either!

    I think a little humour in a crime novel goes a long way and adds an extra dimension to the mystery. That’s why I use humour in my crime novels. If you fancy the occasional chuckle rather than regular shudders, you could do worse than try my Rafferty & Llewellyn crime series.

  8. I read loads of crime books and find them too much the same. In fact, a memorable serial killer is fairly hard to bring to mind – they merge into one a couple of weeks after finishing the book.

  9. As a plot device a serial killer is a sure fire way of moving a plot along as there is always the next body to discover or the threat of one.

    For me the worst aspect of the serial killer thriller is that the author likes to put in chapters where you are taken into the killer’s mind. Rarely a worthwhile detour.

    That said Michael Connelly writes a mean serial killer book.

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