Interview: Jeff Lindsay, Dexter in the Dark
Sitting through an interminable formal luncheon, novelist Jeff Lindsay found his mind drifting. It’s a situation with which we can all identify. But instead of wondering whether he had left the iron on or what he was having for supper that night, Jeff’s thoughts went somewhere very dark as he watched the lunchers. “I was just sitting there and suddenly found myself imagining all these terrible thoughts going through their minds as they smiled and chattered brightly,” he recalls. “And that is when the idea popped in.”
The “idea” that stalked into his head that sunny day was for Dexter Morgan: beloved half-brother, Miami PD blood-spatter specialist and monster. More Mr Ripley than Hannibal Lector, Dexter oozes charm. He is the kind of guy you would be happy for your girlfriends to date. But he hides a dark secret: his idea of overtime is killing guilty suspects who get away with murder.
Now Jeff has written the third in the series, Dexter in the Dark, in which our anti-hero discovers that his Dark Passenger, his very own monster from the id, has disappeared and, worse, an even more evil psychopath is stalking him. What follows is a book that will please Jeff’s many fans with its dramatic twists, dark secrets and sharp humour. “Part of the fun for me was to make him charming,” the former actor admits. “I wanted to force people to think about this a little bit. In fact I wanted to make him as loveable as possible so that people would think, ‘Ain’t that cute, he’s cutting up another person?’ I wanted him to be funny and charming and quirky. Oh, and totally reprehensible.” Like Dexter, Jeff’s sense of humour is dry as Nevada.
Reprehensible he may be, but in a way that plays with our sense of right. Totally self-aware, Dexter channels his murderous instincts into vigilantism. As with the previous two novels, within a few pages of Dexter in the Dark he kills a murderer who looks likely to remain at liberty. It is subtly written, and even the most liberal of readers will be sucked into Dexter’s twisted logic that the murderer should be dispatched because he’s cleverly covered his tracks and the circumstantial evidence against him would be easily dispatched by an expensive lawyer. “I don’t think I am saying that it’s not bad for Dexter to kill these people,” the author explains. “I am inviting people to think about that and to think for themselves.”
What complicates the issue, and makes Dexter a cut above the run-of-the-mill serial killers out there, is that Dexter follows a rigid code handed down by his cop foster-father Harry. This demands that he has no doubts when executing justice. Does that mean Jeff supports summary justice? “I guess I am conflicted on it and as long as I am I will keep writing the books,” he responds thoughtfully. “There is part of us condemning it and there is part of us that wishes we had the guts to do it.”
It is a surprising answer, but it explains why Dexter is among the most complicated characters in contemporary crime fiction. Though a sociopath who inwardly experiences no emotion, outwardly he is a picture of normality. And even his lack of emotion is more complex than such a description may suggest.
As before, grisly murders abound, along with realistic detail about police procedures and incident room politics. So how does Jeff get the detail right? “When I started I did a lot of psychological research and had a lot of cop friends who helped me out with police procedure,” he replies. “If there is a chase scene I go and drive it through to make sure the details are right. I try to be as meticulous as my nature lets me.” The psychological research is what gives Dexter his authenticity. A sociopath, he is, Jeff explains, “a person who has no more feeling for people than he has for furniture. If he didn’t feel like that he would be overcome with remorse.”
The closest we see him come to human emotion is his sense of loss at the sudden disappearance of his Dark Passenger – whose fluttering presence, like the Angel of Death, responds with ravenous glee at the thought of another psychopath. For a sociopath who regards himself as above human, he is company – of sorts. “There is a lot of literature on the subject of hearing that other voice,” Jeff explains. “It is a psychotic symptom. This new book is an attempt at exploring that a bit further.”
He admits getting into the mind of Dexter is not enjoyable. “It is not fun going in there.” He draws on his acting background to help. “I write Dexter as though I was acting it. It is pretty dark in there and makes me long for a clean well-lighted place, to go to the living room and tickle my children.”
On the subject of acting, I wonder how he feels about the TV series based on the novels, which hit screens in the UK this summer. “It’s been an absolute marvel,” he says. “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred television will take your book and throw away what’s good and turn it into what they want, which is crappy television. Not here. Michael C. Hall is absolutely bloody marvellous.” Given such fulsome praise, it comes as a surprise to find that Jeff was shocked when the Six Feet Under actor was suggested for the part. “I didn’t think he was right at all, but then the first time I saw him on the set I was blown away.”
Jeff is now working on the next book, though he is keeping the plot under wraps. All he says is: “I know he is going to do some travelling this time.” Paris and Cuba are mentioned. They are exotic locations for one of the most exotic creatures in crime fiction, and far away from a Florida luncheon full of false smiles and dark thoughts.