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Onyx reviews: Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay

How difficult it must be creatively for Jeff Lindsay to be developing a book series character that is, independently of him, simultaneously taking off on a completely different trajectory as a television character.

Such is the strange case of Dexter Morgan, the anti-hero of three novels (so far) and currently entering his third season in the Showtime series Dexter. The first season of the TV series follows the first Lindsay novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, reasonably well—though there are some significant changes. The second season and novel bear very little resemblance and the third incarnations of each are completely different entities. Readers who come to the books by way of the TV show should know this. These are alternate histories of characters who happen to have the same names and professions…and quirks.

Dexter in the Dark begins with Dexter agonizing over two matters: his next victim, and his impending nuptials with Rita, the damaged mother of two who has already made one bad choice for a life partner and is about to make another, though she doesn't realize it. Going from an abusive drug addict to a serial killer isn't exactly progress.

Dexter, however, is no ordinary serial killer—he's been trained by a cop on ways to avoid being caught. He's also intensely self aware, and does a better job at faking emotions and coming up with the correct by-the-books responses than most normal humans. That he continually professes ignorance of and astonishment at human behavior does not make him any less familiar with it. He's not perfect, but his missteps go unnoticed by most people in his circle of acquaintances.

In Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Lindsay gave Dexter a backstory that explained why he became a sociopath. The same explanation is used in the TV series. However, that wasn't enough for the author, who adds a new level of explanation that may cause many fans of the book series to throw up their hands in wonder.

Scattered throughout the pages of Dexter in the Dark are italicized sections told from the point of view of a primordial evil that arose from the ooze of creation with homicidal intent. This entity appears to be aware of Dexter because of his Dark Passenger, which in previous books seemed to be nothing more than an aspect of his personality that goaded him to kill but now might be a demonic possession. Poor Dexter: Not only is he damaged psychologically, he's haunted, too.

This revelation confuses the delicate moral balance of the character. Getting an audience to root for a serial killer isn't easy. When an author attempts to soften the blow by making the character more sympathetic—by giving him a tragic childhood, for example, as Thomas Harris did with Hannibal Lecter and as Lindsay did with Dexter—he removes some of the mystique. By invoking Moloch, the Biblical demon from the story of Solomon, Lindsay upsets the balance. Readers have less reason to cheer for Dexter if the devil is making him do it.

Dexter is in the dark because his Dark Passenger has fallen silent. He thinks it may have been expelled by the evil force, akin to the way a lion taking over a new pride kills all the existing cubs. The absence of his constant companion leaves him off balance, listless, and vulnerable. It also robs him of his greatest talent: the ability to understand and empathize with the killers he is supposed to help catch as a member of Miami Dade Police Department's forensics division.

After doing away with a man he believes has been killing homeless people, Dexter is summoned to a new crime scene. The burned, decapitated bodies of two co-eds are found on the edge of the campus, with a ceramic bull's head decorating the scene. The other officers suspect Santaria or one of the other Caribbean religions that have sacrificial aspects. Dexter's sister, Sergeant Deborah Morgan (who knows about Dexter's sociopathic nature, unlike in the TV series), thinks Dexter is holding out on her when he doesn't provide any insight about the crime.

Dexter is also in the dark because he doesn't understand the importance of the marriage ritual to ordinary human beings. When his best man, colleague Vince Masuoka, arranges to have Manny Borque, one of Miami's most famous (and expensive, and capricious) chefs, cater the reception, Dexter ends up agreeing to spend more money than he makes in years without understanding how it happened. The scenes where Dexter attempts to negotiate with the flamboyant Borque are ridiculously sublime.

Lindsay would have readers believe that sociopaths are a dime a dozen. Half the police force carries shadows like Dexter's Dark Passenger. Because they suffered abuse at the hands of their father, Rita's young children, Astor and Cody, are also consigned to the same fate as Dexter. Though his adoptive father found a creative way to channel Dexter's homicidal tendencies and is, thus, a heroic (though absent) character in the series, when Dexter follows in his father's footsteps as a mentor to the next generation of murders, it seems like he's taking advantage of damaged personalities when he should be trying to help.

Lindsay hasn't lost his knack for writing acerbic, perverse wit, for Deborah's stream of invectives, even in front of children, or for getting Dexter to delve deeply into his artificial nature via an ongoing, intensely introspective internal dialog, but this experiment into the supernatural cannot be called a success.

A fourth Dexter novel is on the horizon, but it remains to be seen what Lindsay will do with the revelations this book inject into the Dexter mythos. How will the most popular serial killer since Hannibal Lecter deal with the notion that he has a literal demon on his back?

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