I’m halfway through Jeff Lindsay’s fourth Dexter novel, Dexter By Design and it’s fantastic. I’m a notoriously slow reader, but I’ve been trying to be better about that. I’m also fiercely protective of any ongoing series that I enjoy. I don’t like to read more than one installment a year, and I try to savor each while working through it. It’s why I’ve yet to finish F. Paul Wilson’s superb Repairman Jack series, and why I still don’t know whether or not Roland reaches the Dark Tower. I get attached to certain characters, and that makes me reluctant to reach the ends of their stories.
Lindsay’s Dexter books have been some of my favorites since discovering the television series (I believe I watched season 1 when the show was in its third season). I went out and collected the books, falling in love with Lindsay’s colorful writing almost immediately. Dexter Morgan’s voice is so perceptively sarcastic, so funny, that it fills me with jealous rage each time I crack one of these things. Lindsay’s prose makes it look easy, and Dexter makes me laugh out loud. The genius of Lindsay’s writing is that Dexter is so easy to identify with. He deals with life’s absurdities as do we all. We do it to make a living. To enjoy a fulfilling career or foster a rewarding home life. What makes Dexter’s situation so amusing is that he puts up with this crap so that he can disguise his murderous impulses. Most of us suffer through life to survive. Dexter does it so he can kill.
I wish the television series had been half as diligent at exploring this. Outside the show’s brilliant first season (the only one to follow Lindsay’s work with any faithfulness), the show only touched upon this stuff–and the satirical side of television Dexter receded as the show’s longevity extended. The kicker being there were plenty of opportunities for it. The season that put Dexter up against self-help guru Jordan Chase, for example, was begging for this kind of satire: A serial killer with pretend emotions suddenly pretending at problems that stemmed from having them. But the show became too enamored with its main character, clumsily turning him into a moral hero of sorts while forgetting that his appeal was rooted in the idea of a monster fighting for the illusion of humanity.
I think the show’s fans latched onto the wrong idea, falling in love with the concept of a vigilante who’s above the law, and so it’s not hard to understand why the show traveled the path that it did. I liked all eight seasons of Dexter (okay, the last season was weak, but I’ll defend its ending), but it changed gears when it switched showrunners–and not for the better.
The books don’t really have that problem. The one exception (so far) is Dexter in the Dark, which changed the ‘Dark Passenger’ from a label for Dexter’s murderous compulsions into an actual supernatural creature that inhabits him. Lindsay seemed to recognize this misstep as soon as the book was released and it hasn’t been mentioned since (from what I understand). Sure, that plot point might’ve been a mistake, but the book remains loaded with delightful Dexter ticks. In the story, his fiancee (Rita) tasks him with taking an active role in their wedding planning, which finds him trying to recruit a celebrity chef who’ll cater it, but on the condition that he create the menu alone, without their input. Unsurprisingly, this solution only makes Dexter’s life more complicated.
I love Dexter By Design‘s ambiguous first person narration. We love Dexter, but he’s certainly not the most trustworthy storyteller. He loves reminding us that he’s a cold, unfeeling monster, but Dexter By Design is the first time in Lindsay’s canon that I’ve begun to suspect otherwise. It materializes in his concern for Deb when Miami Metro’s current case threatens to bury her in bureaucracy, but more interestingly is how it takes shape in his relationship with Rita’s kids, Astor and Cody. I’ve long been disappointed by the show’s dismissal of these characters after a certain point, as it felt like the writers took the easy way out of dealing with them. Happy to say that so far, Lindsay’s books have done a much better job exploring Dexter’s patriarchal abilities. Dexter himself may be largely devoid of empathy, but this is the first time I’ve felt a significant change within the character.
That’s the beauty of Dexter–its a constant struggle through life’s minutiae. That’s the vein Lindsay taps that keeps me coming back. Sure, his mysteries are intriguing–gleeful little horror shows that keep the pages turning with macabre delight–but none of it would work without the foundation of facade that he’s built. We like Dexter because we see ourselves in him. He fights the good fight. So in Dexter By Design, when he’s called away on work while Rita slaves away on homemade Coq Au Vin, a sweet reminder of their recent Parisian honeymoon, he winds up eating it cold at the kitchen table in the middle of the night. It’s disgusting, but he pretends it’s deliciousness personified. The monster has to lie, like we all sometimes must, in order to keep the dream alive.