A good friend loaned me DVDs of the three seasons of Dexter when I was recovering from surgery. I’d heard of the show, read reviews of the books in PW, and once I began watching the DVDs, could not understand why I hadn’t watched them earlier or read all the books. For people with delicate stomachs and sensibilities, Dexter Morgan and his wry, dark view of the world, could be rather offensive. Humor fills the show, black or satirical or otherwise just funny, steeped in the setting of Miami, and strongly focused on the police characters as Dexter’s “family.” After all, his sister, Deborah, is one of the cops….
I was so hooked on this anti-hero character (I love anti-heroes like Tom Ripley and my own Evan Quinn) that I decided to read all the books while I (and my good friend) wait for season 4’s release on DVD. The first one is Darkly Dreaming Dexter. I wanted to know how closely the cable TV show followed the book. I wanted to know how Jeff Lindsay had written the character of Dexter Morgan so that he was likeable. He is likeable in the show, easy to relate to because of his flaws, not least of which is his need to kill. The show makes it clear that, like Hannibal Lecter, Dexter has a “code” regarding whom he’d kill and how. He’s established a ritual in the show for fulfilling his need. As a serial killer, he’s kind of boring, actually. Nothing that unusual about the ritual (it’s all very logical for his purpose and code) and he leaves nothing, I mean nothing, behind for anyone to find. The cops don’t know that they have a serial killer in their midst, working as a blood spatter specialist in their forensic lab.
The first novel grabbed me by the throat on page 1 and did not let me go, even after I finished it. The cable TV show had followed the book closely but had also embellished and added quite a lot that did not detract from the story but enriched it. Jeff Lindsay and his Dexter left me hungry for more. How did he do that? As a writer, I wanted to know. How did he do that?
Point of view. Lindsay did a potentially limiting, brave and extraordinary thing: he gave the story to Dexter Morgan to tell, i.e. he used first person point of view, the first person being Dexter Morgan. The reader sees everything through his eyes, reads his thoughts, knows what he knows about what’s going on in the story. We are in Dexter’s mind. He tends to be rather hard on himself, too. Especially when it comes to emotional expression. Over and over, Dexter thinks about how he doesn’t feel anything, or what he feels is inappropriate. He’s an intelligent dude and observant. He understands that certain behaviors go with expressing certain emotions. He is loyal to his adoptive family and to his job. He’s also aware of what he calls his “Dark Passenger,” the impulse, and the intelligence that goes with it, to kill. In this first novel, Dexter becomes fascinated by a serial killer in Miami that drains his victims of blood and cuts up their bodies, wraps the pieces and leaves them at unusual places. Dexter decides that he admires the killer’s technique and soon learns that the killer admires his.
I call Lindsay’s decision to write in first person POV brave because it could have not worked for a character like Dexter. Who wants to get inside the head of a serial killer? Yuck. But he approaches the character as being a human being first, albeit a deeply flawed and traumatized one, intelligent, wanting to belong and be loved, and not able to remember the trauma that marked him for life. His craving to satisfy his Dark Passenger is not so different from a craving for drugs, alcohol, tobacco or sex. He’s been fortunate in his adoptive family: his sister Deborah loves him unconditionally and accepts is quirks without question (but some teasing), and his father, Harry Morgan, a cop, recognized early how the trauma had affected Dexter and taught him how to channel and control his Dark Passenger. Harry gave him his “code.” He follows it religiously. Lindsay managed to make Dexter likeable through his voice, his attitude toward people and the world, and through Dexter’s unique sense of humor. It’s fun to spend time with him, and not so frustrating that he doesn’t have an omniscient view of what’s going on in the story.
First person POV is limiting . The reader only knows what that character knows, sees, hears, experiences. It can be very effective for creating suspense. Jeff Lindsay has used it to create a connection between the reader and Dexter. Bravo to you, Jeff Lindsay! I’ve already bought the second novel in the Dexter series…..