Jeff Lindsay is the bestselling author of five ‘Dexter’ novels: DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER (2004), DEARLY DEVOTED DEXTER (2005), DEXTER IN THE DARK (2007), DEXTER BY DESIGN (2009) and DEXTER IS DELICIOUS (2010). The novels are set in contemporary Florida.
The first Dexter novel, DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER, wasn’t just a popular success, it was also nominated for a ‘Best First Novel’ Edgar. It was subsequently dropped from the category, however, when it was discovered that Jeff Lindsay had previously published novels under a different name.
The character of Dexter is an intriguing one. He is a broadly sympathetic sociopath, and can be read as a linear descendant of both Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley and Robert Harris’s Hannibal Lecter.
Where Dexter differs from these characters is in the way he harnesses his homicidal impulses in order to kill only those particularly vile criminals who are a threat to society. In effect, and while works a day job as a forensic technician for the Miami Police Department specialising in blood traces, his true calling is as a vigilante who believes himself to be reinforcing the thin blue line.
Dexter was taught at an early age to control and channel his homicidal instincts by his father, Harry, who was himself a Miami cop. Dexter operates to a strictly observed ‘Code’ of ethics, according to which he only ever kills other killers.
The novels are told in the first person. The tone is jaunty, with Dexter acutely aware of his failings, and also of how incongruous his nature is. The first-person narrative allows for plenty of asides to the reader, and lashings of morbidly black humour. The pace is swift, with short, snappy chapters maintaining the momentum.
He is married to Rita, who has two young children (Astor and Cody) from a previous relationship. Rita is oblivious to Dexter’s true nature. Her children, however, share his dark secret and his instincts.
The current novel, DEXTER IS DELICIOUS, offers a number of twists on the standard Dexter story. The story opens with the birth of Dexter’s child, Lily Anne, which has the effect of ‘humanising’ him to a degree that he previously considered impossible (Dexter frequently refers to himself as ‘inhuman’). The novel also introduces Dexter’s long-lost brother, Brian, who appears to have a malign interest in Cody and Astor.
The narrative thrust of the story has Dexter helping his foster-sister, Detective Sgt Deborah Morgan, investigate a series of gruesome murders perpetrated by a group of Miami-based cannibals.
Lindsay treads a very fine line in the Dexter novels. Readers respond well to the fact that Dexter privately cuts through a lot of red tape and the usual boring detail of police procedural work in order to render a very crude form of natural justice.
By the same token, Dexter himself works for the Miami Police Department, and is publicly bound by a more conventional expression of law and order. It is also to his credit that, as the novels have progressed, Dexter has become more aware of his own failings.
What is interesting about the Dexter novels is that they present the reader with a moral conundrum. The anti-heroes in the novels of Patricia Highsmith, Robert Harris and Jim Thompson, for example, are sympathetically drawn, but it’s always clear that they are not intended to be read as forces for good.
Dexter, on the other hand, is a serial killer, yet Lindsay wants the reader to accept that Dexter is a positive character, and that the world is enhanced by his acting on his murderous impulses, regardless of how refined and sophisticated he has rendered those impulses. For all the jaunty humour and self-deprecating asides, this conceit never fully works for me.
I also had issues with the extent to which Dexter, a crime scene technician, was free to accompany Detective Sgt Morgan as she sped around Miami investigating the case of the feasting cannibals. Dexter spends far more time out of his office than in it, with no superior asking questions about his absences, and while Lindsay makes great play of the adversarial relationship between Dexter and Morgan, and the extent to which she bullies him into going along with her whims (she detests her new partner, for example, and prefers Dexter’s company and insights), the frequency of such trips make the story increasingly implausible.
That said, Lindsay is not aiming for gritty realism here. The Dexter novels (and the spin-off TV series) have far more in common with CSI Miami than The Wire, say. The novels are intended, you’d have to assume, as wish-fulfilment hokum, and for the most part they fulfil their remit.
Dexter’s black humour begins to grate after a while, particularly in terms of his self-deprecating references to his weaknesses when compared with the stronger women in his life, and especially as we know that he is capable of tremendous savagery. Humour is a very personal thing, of course, but I did find that it detracted from the character rather than added to him.
Much more interesting is Lindsay’s take on Dexter’s extended family, even if very few of the characters are linked to Dexter by flesh and blood. The latest arrival, Lily Anne, is the exception.
His father, Harry, was an adoptive father; he has a foster-sister, Sgt Deborah Morgan; his ‘children’ previous to Lily Anne are Cody and Astor, Rita’s son and daughter from a previous relationship. His brother, Brian, turns up in the new novel, after a long period of estrangement.
Other than Lily Anne, Brian is Dexter’s “only biological relative, as far as I knew, although considering the little I had uncovered about our round-heeled mother, anything was possible.”
While this extended, complex family offers the promise of some insights into the nature of the contemporary fracturing of the traditional nuclear family unit, Lindsay does very little to develop it. His frequent declarations of love for his new baby sound heartfelt at first, although they do become rather banal through repetition.
More significantly, perhaps, the construction of the novel - the swift pace, the short chapters, the jocular tone - are not conducive to Lindsay exploring any theme or subject in any great depth. This is as true of Dexter’s own psychological complexities as it is of his complicated family.
All told, DEXTER IS DELICIOUS is a fun, breezy read that demands too little, given the seriousness of its subject matter, of the reader. For a more profound take on the mind of a psychopathic killer, read Patricia Highsmith or Jim Thompson instead. - Declan Burke
Jeff Lindsay’s DEXTER IS DELICIOUS is published by Orion
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.