From Edward Hyde to Hannibal Lecter, to the serial killer in practically every James Patterson novel, what would the world of mystery thrillers be without the psychopathic, criminally disturbed villain? It’s practically a sub-genre in itself.
Yet, as a therapist as well as a mystery writer, I can’t tell you how often I’ve read thrillers in which the author’s depiction of a “psycho” killer is pure boilerplate: unconvincing, unmotivated, without psychological depth or realism. But why is this? Especially when the writer’s other characters seem much more rounded, realistic, subject to the usual panoply of feelings and motives?
I think it’s because some crime writers see their monstrous, unstoppable killer as being “out there” somewhere, beyond the realm of normal human behavior. A caricature of evil out of a child’s nightmare. Or, even worse, they often conjure a conveniently “crazy” killer who commits the crime merely because he’s crazy. Merely to horrify the reader. Merely as an excuse for gratuitous and graphic depictions of unspeakable acts. Merely as a bad guy heinous enough to have us rooting for the hero to finally stop him. In other words, the boogie-man.
Not that this is always the case. In Michael Connelly’s The Poet, serial child molester and murderer William Gladden is terrifyingly real because, in many ways, he seems so ordinary, so matter-of-fact. In Patricia Highsmith’s novels about Ripley, her antihero is so chillingly clear-headed that his atavism seems purely natural. And in Robert Bloch’s Psycho, Norman Bates is the veritable Poster Child for the dangers inherent in severe mother-son enmeshment. Though, on the surface, he seems like such a nice, thoughtful young man…
[The serial killer next door...]