Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay

lindsayj-dexterinthedarkI’ve given less-than-glowing reviews of the first two Dexter novels. You might wonder why I keep returning for more. The fact is, I love the TV series, and I miss it between seasons. So this is the next best thing – except Lindsay’s Dexter is not quite the same as the on-screen Dexter. I saw that in the previous books, and the trend continues here.

The hook of the character, for me, is the personal identification with the human tendency to project a fake identity – or at least the inability to be completely transparent with people. Dexter may hide himself because he has a lust to kill, but all of us have dark sides, to one extent or another. Dexter provides a sounding board for exploring that side of human nature – albeit in an overly dramatic fashion.

Dexter refers to his nastier tendencies as his “Dark Passenger.” I always understood this as his way of personifying an aspect of his own psyche. But in this third novel, Lindsay has decided that it’s actually sort of demonic entity that he carries around with him. What?! This strikes me as the most colossal blunder that an author could make – ripping the very heart and soul out of what makes the character appealing. Dexter is now no longer a man we can relate to as someone strugging with metaphorical “inner demons.” He’s infested with a real demon. So now we can’t relate to him at all. Now’s he a victim of something outside of his control – just the way that Christians blame the devil for the things they don’t like about human nature.

Anyway, in the story, Dexter’s Dark Passenger leaves him because it is scared off by a bigger demon, and Dexter is left as a shell of his former self – realising that so much of his identity depended on having the demon in the first place. Worse still, Dexter becomes a teacher of his girlfriend’s two children, Astor and Cody, who have Dark Passengers of their own. Cody can sense the bad guy supernaturally, and can also sense when Dexter’s “shadow” (as he calls it) returns to him. This is a complete nosedive from intelligent psychology to Christian-inspired superstition. It’s hard for me to see how this will get any better in the subsequent books.

In fairness, if you leave your brain at the door and just read this as a trashy horror novel, it’s moderately entertaining. But the television series (now in its seventh season) has utterly eclipsed the novels in terms of good storytelling.

Dearly Devoted Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

In my review of the first Dexter book, I stated that I had no interest in reading another, being a little disappointed with it in comparison to the excellent television series. Well, I got tired waiting for season three to come out on DVD, and I really needed my Dexter fix, so I thought, What the hell. While season one is a fairly faithful adaptation of Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, season two doesn’t follow Dearly Devoted Dexter. There are some strong overlaps in terms of the story arc, such as Sergeant Doakes stalking Dexter and Dexter’s sister Deborah forming a relationship with an FBI agent who becomes involved with their main case. It’s clear the series writer(s) were familiar with the book, but chose to go in a very different direction with the main story.

The thrust of the book is the hunt for a serial killer who is targetting specific individuals, abducting them, cutting off their arms, legs, lips and eyelids, cauterising the wounds, then placing them (still alive) in front of a mirror, for the police to find the insanely screaming remains of a human being. Who is this madman? What’s the connection between the victims? These are the questions that Dexter and team must answer before the body count rises. What makes things interesting is, of course, Dexter’s own dark nature thrown into the mix. And when Sergeant Doakes is abducted, this would appear to remove a major thorn from Dexter’s side, but would the Code of Harry be satisfied to leave things as they are?

The book held my interest for the duration of its length, but the ending was a real let-down, and is really my only gripe. All the detective work is swept adide as Dexter makes a lucky guess, leading him to the psychopath. A crude storytelling shortcut, especially for a crime novel, where real intricate detective work is what satisfies the reader. I think the television writers wisely went their own way this time, because the second series took the Dexter character into more dramatic and interesting territory, fleshing out a much more complex drama between Dexter and Doakes, as well as introducing a love interest for Dexter who turns out to be just as misanthopic as Dexter, in her own way. Once again, the series outdoes the book. Dearly Devoted Dexter is worth a read and is certainly above average. If it weren’t for the ending, I would rate it higher. There are currently four Dexter books in print. I might be back for more. We’ll see.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

I started tuning into the TV series Dexter when it was partway through the first season, and I immediately liked it – so much so that I sought out the novel on which it is based. The premise is this: Dexter Morgan works for the police as a blood-spatter analyst. Under the surface, he is a sociopath, who has learned to hide it well. In fact, he has killed many times, but only according to a strict code handed down to him by his now-dead stepfather Harry. Harry, being an experienced cop, knew what Dexter was from a very early age. And so he did everything in his power to keep his step-son from ending up in the electric chair one day. He taught him to control his murderous urges, to kill only under strict circumstances, and only those who deserved to die. And so, adult Dexter works for the police, covertly solving unsolved crimes in his own special way. And the body count rises.

It’s bizarre, right? And that’s part of the attraction. No one’s written a book quite like this. It’s a similar attraction with the likes of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which puts an even worse bad guy in the driving seat of the story. But is Dexter a bad guy? Sort of. In one sense he’s a vigilante hero, but he’s still a guy with a serious dark side who comes way too close to murdering the innocent for comfort. He also treats people close to him badly, seeing his girlfriend as a wardrobe accessory that helps him blend into the human race. For me, the attraction of the novel is in how Dexter deals with being an outsider. It’s something every geek can relate to. He’s different – unnacceptable. He must do a degree of acting to live, and he hates having to do it. Inside he has a longing to be like others, but senses that he never will be. On some level it’s possible to push aside the fact that he’s a murderer and simply relate to his experience. Dexter is also a story about the consequences of shame and guilt. Even though he feels neither, he is still burdened with the need to keep secrets from the world. Anyone can relate to this. I mean, we all have things we don’t want others to know, right?

Dexter is, however, a bit of a walking contradiction. He insists that he is incapable of feeling anything, and yet over the course of the story we see him going through all sorts of emotions – just not in a typically well-adjusted human fashion. The overall story concerns another serial killer on the rampage, one who has eluded the police – and one who leaves special secret messages that are just for Dexter. Somehow the mysterious killer knows more than anyone should about Dexter’s true nature. It’s worth noting that while the book and season 1 of the series tell the same story, the series expands on it a great deal and packs some surprises into the final episodes that those who have read the book will enjoy. The two do not end the same way.

Ultimately, the explanation for why Dexter is the way he is turns out to be farcical: a single traumatic event in his life made him a psychopath. I don’t buy it. In fact, the whole idea of romanticising a sociopath can ultimately be no more than a fascinating fairytale – and possibly a dangerous one. Hey, I can kill people and still be cool!

In the epilogue, the story seems to lose direction entirely, with Dexter promising to kill someone on far shakier grounds than the Code of Harry would allow. It’s rare that I prefer an adaptation to an original, but this time the TV series gets my vote. The TV Dexter character wasn’t as dislikable, or contradictory, as the Dexter in the book. I doubt I’ll be back for the written sequel, Dearly Devoted Dexter, but I’m eager to watch season 2 (which is not an adaptation of the second novel). My continuing interest might sound hypocritical, but I’m too fascinated by the character to write him off just yet.

This was an enjoyable, original page-turner for most of its length, losing its way towards the end. There are currently four Dexter books in print.