Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a newsletter about things I’ve read

An infant in its cradle: William Blake’s prophetic serial killers

Michael Dibdin, Dark Spectre

Notwithstanding the date shown, this post was actually sent out on 19-Jan-2022.

I hadn’t planned to write about Michael Dibdin again so soon after my longish discussion of his Aurelio Zen series, but the cover of Dark Spectre kept catching my eye and I realized that I wanted to reread it sooner rather than later, so I hope you’ll indulge me. It’s a novel about an extremely untypical group of serial killers.

I’ve said before (for example when writing about Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil and Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Liar’s Girl), that I’m not a big fan of serial killer narratives. The killers’ motives in such tales tend to be based on misogyny, and I usually feel that the stories invoke, to some degree, the vicarious misogyny of the reader. Galbraith’s and Ryan Howard’s books are written from a feminist angle and try to challenge the established pattern of such novels, but the results aren’t necessarily satisfactory. Both of the novels I’ve mentioned seem to me to be weaker than some of their authors’ other books.

Dibdin’s killers, on the other hand, don’t care much whether their victims are men or women, boys or girls. One is a fifteen-month-old baby. They appear to be chosen at random, and to have nothing specific in common. Most of them are killed in their own homes, which are in such diverse locations as Seattle and Atlanta, Houston, St Louis and Evanston, Illinois. The crimes are investigated by different police departments. There is nothing to connect the killings except the m.o.: the victims are handcuffed and silenced with duct tape over their mouths, while the killers (who usually work in pairs) check the property for other occupants. Then one of the killers makes a video recording while the other shoots everybody once in the head with a .22 calibre fragmenting bullet. They remove the handcuffs and duct tape, then leave to catch their bus.

Though the murderers kill everybody found in the property, including children, they keep alive a witness from a neighbouring apartment, even though she might be able to identify them. What can they possibly be up to? It turns out that the brains (such as they are) behind the killing spree belong to a man named Sam who now runs a kind of commune on an otherwise unoccupied island in the Puget Sound, where he is addressed by his adoring followers as “Los” as he gives them hours-long lectures on the prophetic books of Blake. In the 1970s, Sam was a hippyish student in Minneapolis, where he shared a house with several others, including Phil, the first-person narrator of significant parts of the book. (Phil’s narrative alternates with chapters in the third person, recounting other elements in the story, in particular the killers’ trips to the sites of their crimes and a multiple homicide investigation by Kristine Kjarstad, a detective in King County, Washington.)

During an earnest, rambling, drink-and-drug-fuelled discussion, Sam insists that “the problem of evil” is soluble only if one rejects the idea that there exists a god who is both all-powerful and benevolent. In this, he clashes fiercely with Larry, another of the housemates, who claims that they have no right to judge or question God. On their way home, thinking that they are going to be searched by the police, Sam swallows their entire stash, which supposedly consists of “organic mescaline”. That night, as he tells Phil many years later, he has a kind of epiphany which leads him to understand “the secret” which answers the problem of evil. It is that secret that causes him to send out his followers to murder people more or less at random.

Sam has discovered a passage in one of William Blake’s prophetic books which seems to support his new understanding, and he makes this the basis of his cult. When, towards the end of the story, Phil eventually learns the secret, he sees that it effectively gives Sam a licence to kill whomever he pleases: the very fact that somebody can be killed prematurely, or have (apparent) pain and suffering inflicted on them, is itself proof that that that person is not a real, sentient human being, but rather a shadow or spectre that exists only to test our faith, by making it appear that we live in a world of barely tolerable suffering. God must be trusted to protect those who are really his creatures.

Sam discovered his secret all by himself, or maybe with some assistance from narcotics. Blake’s prophesies, notoriously difficult to interpret, add little more than window-dressing: they are an authority he can appeal to to help sell his world-view to his disciples. They don’t really provide any more solid foundation for Sam’s doctrine than Blake’s paintings do for the deranged project of Francis Dolarhyde in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon.

I can’t remember when I read Red Dragon but I think it must have been some years after the Dibdin novel. I didn’t notice the parallels between the allegedly Blake-inspired serial killers in the two books until much later. Eventually, it occurred to me to wonder whether Dibdin might have been attempting a critique of, or riposte to, Harris’s earlier novel. If one were going to base a serial killer’s motives in the work of Blake, shouldn’t one at least make an effort to come up with something a little weirder, a little more out of the ordinary, and less predictable than the standard serial killer narrative?

Like Sam, Dolarhyde doesn’t (for the most part) seem to think that he’s inflicting suffering and untimely death on his fellow creatures. But whereas Sam sees his victims as mere simulacra who aren’t alive in the first place, Dolarhyde seems to believe that he’s not so much killing his as “changing” them, in a process by which they help him to “become” what he has the potential to develop into: the great Red Dragon.

As against that, it seems clear that he understood that he was torturing and murdering the journalist Freddy Lounds. Also, it’s clear that there’s a misogynist motive for his murders: to some extent, he’s looking for revenge for his abandonment by his mother and mistreatment by his grandmother. He selects his victim families largely on the basis of the mother’s attraction for him, and we learn that he leaves behind semen and saliva, from which the investigators are able to tell his blood group. (The book came out in 1981, before it was possible to use DNA in criminal investigation.)

So, Dolarhyde is in many ways a “standard” serial killer. In spite of this, though, there are clear similarities between his activities and those of Sam’s followers. He kills whole families in their own homes, he selects them in different cities (though he doesn’t move about to the same extent as the killers in Dark Spectre do) and there’s no evident connection between the families he chooses. (It turns out that both families left in film to be processed by the lab he runs.) For these reasons, I think it’s likely that Dark Spectre, though a very different novel from Red Dragon, was suggested or “inspired” by it.

As well the eleven books in the Aurelio Zen series, Dibdin wrote seven standalone novels of widely varying styles and themes, of which Dark Spectre is the penultimate. For some years, he alternated between Zen novels and out-of-series ones, but wrote only one more in the latter category, Thanksgiving (2000). He may have decided that he could achieve the variety he was aiming for within the Zen series itself.

Dark Spectre and Thanksgiving are both, unlike his other novels, set in the United States. Dibdin moved to Seattle following his third marriage, to the crime novelist K K Beck. Both books are a significant departure from his earlier novels, which tend to be set in either England or Italy (his second book, A Rich Full Death, has Robert Browning investigating murders in Florence.) But significant departures were not unusual for Dibdin: even his series novels differ from each other more than is usual.


I’m going to take a week off, so the next issue will go out on 9 February — that’s in three weeks’ time instead of the usual two. It’s probably going to be about Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel, Enduring Love and, if I can fit them in, one or more of Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach and The Children Act. (I wrote about Saturday back in April, and I’ll have something to say about his “spy fiction” — The Innocent and Sweet Tooth — later this year.)


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Thanks for reading.