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Onyx reviews: Dexter by Design by Jeff Lindsay

Everyone's favorite serial killer is in a bind. His sister, Deb, is having difficulty coming to terms with Dexter's homicidal hobby. His new wife, Rita, suspects that her son, Cody, was emotionally scarred by his father. His nemesis Sergeant Doakes has programmed his new speech synthesizer to repeat his mantra: I'm watching you. And Dexter's Dark Passenger still wants to go out to play.

Recently back from his honeymoon in Paris, Dexter gets involved in a series of unusual crimes. Bodies are found posed in public locations. Their innards are removed and replaced by fruit and champagne. Dexter's Dark Passenger is oddly silent on the matter, which leads Miami Police Department's blood spatter expert to think there's something atypical about these crimes. The deaths are incidental—it's the display that is important to the perpetrator. Dexter's intuition leads him to suggest that the killings are the work of a disgruntled former employee of the Department of Tourism.

Deb is seriously injured by a suspect who then threatens to sue the department, leading to an Internal Affairs investigation. Dexter decides that the easiest way to make all of his problems go away is to make the suspect go away. When he ignores his father Harry's code about being cautious and prepared, his rash actions threaten to expose him. He's wrong about the suspect and is captured on video in the most compromising of circumstances. The real culprit sets his sights on Dexter, and his actions draw the kind of attention that Dexter typically shuns. 

In the meantime, Dexter is trying to tutor Rita's children, Astor and Cody, who have Dark Passengers of their own. Harry recognized what young Dexter was and counseled him in ways to direct his homicidal tendencies to keep him from being discovered and make a contribution to society, twisted as it was. Dexter has promised to teach Astor and Cody what he knows. They are eager students.

The villain of the piece, the auteur behind the staged corpses, remains offstage for most of the novel, which makes him more enigmatic and threatening. He's glimpsed briefly during an early confrontation—so briefly that Dexter misidentifies him. Dexter pursues him on foot after a smash and grab attempt on Rita's children, but again he is mostly a shadow. He communicates with Dexter primarily through a series of YouTube videos that could be Dexter's undoing if they went viral.

Lindsay telegraphs the theme of murder-as-art during Dexter and Rita's honeymoon. After stumbling through all the usual tourist spots, they end up at an avant-garde museum where the main exhibit features self-mutilation. It's a touch convenient in the grand scheme, the sort of coincidence that defies logical explanation. 

Dexter and Deb's boyfriend chase the culprit to Havana, but he's always a step ahead. Even the final confrontation is oddly low-key, given the stakes for Dexter. He arrives on the scene at the last minute, certain that no matter what happens his secret will be exposed, but things get neatly wrapped up in just a few pages.

Fans of the ShowTime series have something of a challenge with these books. While many details are the same, there are enough fundamental differences that readers must put aside the adaptation. This Dexter has a more sardonic sense of humor than his TV counterpart, especially when he waxes poetic about Miami's homicidal drivers, but he's also less human. The Michael C. Hall version of Dexter is less obviously a sociopath. He believes he lacks emotions, but his actions often betray more humanity than he admits. Lindsay's character abdicates responsibility for his actions to an alien presence—his Dark Passenger, an entity akin to a possessing demon. 

The main difference, though, between Lindsay's creations and those on the TV series is that the latter have been undergoing a progressive evolution, whereas Lindsay's characters have not. Doakes, maimed and disabled though he might be, is still the same single-minded automaton that he was in the first novel and Dexter's sister is still shrill and foul-mouthed. In the TV series, Deb has gained a great deal of self confidence and is working her way up through the ranks of the Miami P.D. This fourth Dexter novel, though, regains some of the traction it lost in Dexter in the Dark by abandoning blatantly supernatural elements and returning to the mundane horrors of real life.  

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