'The Great Good Place' No More? Integrating and Dismantling Oppositional Discourse in Some Recent Examples of Serial Killer Fiction

By Santaularia, Isabel | Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos, June 2007 | Go to article overview

'The Great Good Place' No More? Integrating and Dismantling Oppositional Discourse in Some Recent Examples of Serial Killer Fiction


Santaularia, Isabel, Atlantis, revista de la Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos


Serial killer narratives delight in portraying a gothic social landscape of pervasive and endemic crime, violence and evil in a postmodern context of apathy, indifference and institutional incompetence. In this paper I analyse the extent of the critique of contemporary society in this popular genre. Using some recent examples of serial killer narratives--both novels and films--as case studies, I argue that, even though they accommodate a discourse that jeopardises the comfortable imagining in detective fictions of an innocent society threatened by occasional crime, serial killer narratives ultimately endorse the status quo and the state apparatuses that regulate it and guarantee its preservation.

Key words: popular narratives, genre narratives, detective fiction, gothic, serial killer narratives, discourse

The progress of detective fiction in general is one that goes from order disrupted to order re-established; from the smell of corruption pervading all to the identification and removal of the party that caused this corruption. Progressively, the comforting imagining in detective narratives of an innocent society--the Great Good Place as W.H. Auden called it in his seminal essay 'The Guilty Vicarage' (1980:19)--threatened by a single criminal individual who is no longer in a state of moral grace has given way to apocalyptic depictions of wastelandish cityscapes rife with violence and corruption, morally irredeemable modern worlds "slouching toward the much-needed clarity of Armageddon" (Simpson 2000: 200). Situated in these metaphoric hells, the "idler"--using Peter Messent's terminology--has become the flaneur (1997:5): the almost superhuman amateur detective whose unempathetic intervention guaranteed community health has developed into a doomed searcher, a fated crusader whose involvement in corruption either hardens his soul to the point of nihilistic detachment or ultimately plunges him in a pool of despair from which there is no escape.

These postmodern reconfigurations, however, have done little to dismantle the conservative ideological trappings that have characterised the genre ever since its origins in the narratives of Edgar Allan Poe featuring Auguste Dupin, or Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes short stories and novellas. Detectives, both amateur and professional, still strive to preserve the maintenance of the status quo. No matter how high the price they pay in emotional investment, it is still the function of detectives to restore a sense of coherence to a community ruptured by crime and, through their apt performance, to sanction the necessity of the law-enforcement institutions that protect the stability of the system. Increasingly responsive to an audience or readership assailed by paranoid fears of destabilisation by a threatening, alien Other in a society characterised by global fundamentalism, detective narratives disclose the endemic problems in the social fabric while, simultaneously, positioning the law-enforcement agents as the last line of defence, whose methods, even when expedient and ruthless, serve to maintain a semblance of harmony and peace after the forces of chaos have been destroyed. As Peter Messent phrases the idea:

   There has traditionally been an ambiguity at the heart of the
   private-eye form that renders it (in the majority of cases)
   inevitably conservative, in the genre's endorsement of the status
   quo whatever the failures in the fabric of ... economic and
   political life it reveals.... [Detective narratives] both endorse
   the status quo and, in addition, consign crime to the realm of the
   morally monstrous.... [S]uch a tactic may be symptomatic of a
   deep-rooted need for social reassurance on the part of the
   contemporary audience for which such texts are written. (1997: 3)

The serial killer subgenre is no exception. This relatively recent variation came into being in the 1970s with the coinage, and subsequent popularisation, of the term serial murder by Robert K. …

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