Novels and television series like You take us inside the minds of murderers. But are we in danger of falling for their tricks?by Megan Evershed / January 22, 2019 / Leave a comment
Have you ever wanted to peer inside the mind of a killer—even if just for a little while?
Admittedly, this question is a tease. It’s impossible to take a dip into anybody’s psyche—including that of a murderer. To get even close to doing so, we have to turn to fiction.
Stories told from inside the mind of a murderer are fascinating because their desires and actions are, for the most part, alien to us. It’s a gripping exercise, but one that comes with some complicated side effects. This storytelling technique not only automatically aligns us with the killer, but also, potentially, encourages us to sympathise with them.
This is definitely true for His Bloody Project, a 2015 novel by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Burnet’s book contains documents relating to a fictional murder case set in 19th century Scotland. The bulk of the narrative is told from the perspective of 17-year-old Roderick Macrae, who—despite murdering three people—stirs us to sympathy. The fact that we are reading the story from Roderick’s perspective has everything to do with this.
In literature, the use of the first-person means that we experience all facets of a killer’s personality: their brutality alongside other, more palatable characteristics. The same effect is accomplished in television through the use of voiceover, as in the recent Netflix series You. You is told from the perspective of Joe Goldberg, a bookstore clerk who becomes obsessed with a woman who comes into his shop one day, Guinevere Beck. Joe fixates on Beck, stalks her, even kills “for her.”
Joe is abominable. But he’s also darkly funny. He characterizes Benji, the trust fund frat boy who runs an artisanal soda brand, as “everything wrong with America.” As Beck and her friends discuss The Bachelor, Joe thinks, “Sometimes, I swear I’m the only real feminist you know.”
Joe’s deadpan comments are reminiscent of another killer with a dry sense of humour: Dexter Morgan. Dexter, like You, is told from the perspective of a killer; a self-confessed psychopath, Dexter works as a blood splatter specialist during the day and kills murderers who have slipped through legal cracks at night.
Joe and Dexter’s wry internal reflections make us feel like we’re in on the joke. Because we’re inside their minds, we also see their softer sides: we see Joe take Paco, a young neighbour…