When an anonymous Kansan named Dennis Rader was arrested in a Wichita suburb in February, 2005 and charged with the BTK serial murders, local police looked forward to closing a notorious case that had been open for longer than many Kansans had been alive. At large for over thirty years in the Wichita area, BTK committed horrifying murders (“BTK” stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill”), while acting as his own public relations agent.
Caught through the excesses of his own hubris, Dennis Rader had done little to distance himself from his crimes. Police confiscated a large cache of horrifying evidence. After state attorneys spent months preparing what surely would have been an overwhelming case for conviction, Rader surprised prosecutors and public alike by pleading guilty in June. In August he was sentenced to ten consecutive life terms in prison.
Life and art collided in the courtroom at Rader’s plea and sentencing hearings. It’s not just that each side told its own story of BTK’s crimes and capture, and it’s not just that BTK’s crime spree became the subject of lurid entertainment, carried in all of its explicit glory by broadcast and internet news outlets. This case stands out because BTK is a serial killer out of a novel. At a time when serial killer stories enjoy unprecedented popularity, BTK’s real-life story consciously imitates fiction.
BTK’s literary sensibility is everywhere evident. The main character in a mystery story he was writing himself, BTK showed a ghoulish authorial creativity. Once he waited for a victim who never came home, and then left her a note—which he copied to a local television station. BTK taunted the police and the press to keep his ongoing whodunnit open, increasing his self-advertising around the thirtieth anniversary of his first murder. When journalists revived BTK’s story on that occasion, BTK “corrected” the official account by calling public attention to a killing not previously attributed to him. This notification took a creepy form: he sent a copy of the victim’s driver’s license to the police in order to claim her for his curriculum vitae. “Only I can control my own narrative,” BTK seemed to be saying.
BTK wrote puzzles studded with clues—including an acrostic containing his name and address—and sent them to the press and police, with whom he maintained an active and long-running correspondence. Like many a serial killer before him, BTK must have felt powerful when he paraded in public in this way. Such preening may even have replaced his need to kill people; unless new murders come to light, it seems likely that BTK didn’t kill anyone for over a decade before his capture.
Criminologists speculate that BTK’s hiatus may also have resulted from the pleasure that Dennis Rader took in his day job as a town compliance inspector in Park City, Kansas. Rader’s position allowed him to adopt an officious bearing, write tickets, and harass his neighbors about the height of their grass or the behavior of their dogs. It looks like Dennis Rader/BTK got off on being in charge of people—and of stories.
Maybe BTK was captured because he started believing his own story. Despite the teasing clues he left, he may have convinced himself that he would never get caught—so he got careless. He sent the police a message on a computer disk, and while he wiped his fingerprints off the disk, he didn’t do the same with the information on it. Files written in Microsoft Word contain a lot of hidden information, including the identity of whoever purchased and registered that copy of the software. BTK usually showed considerable technical savvy, but along with his deliberate clues, he left some accidental ones this time. The police traced that computer disk back to Dennis Rader’s small church. As one of the few people with access to the church computer, Rader received close scrutiny from law enforcement for the first time. Once the police performed a DNA test on Rader’s daughter and matched it with the semen BTK left at one of his early crime scenes, Dennis Rader was arrested, and a decades-long manhunt came to an apparent close.
But BTK sent something along with that infamous disk that has gotten little attention. It was the cover of a serial killer novel, John Sandford’s Rules of Prey. The 1989 novel, the first entry in an ongoing series, features a game-playing serial killer known as maddog who baits the police, just as BTK did. By linking himself to Sandford, BTK was clearly trying to insert himself into a tradition of crime stories.
Sandford’s story fits squarely into the extremely popular formula for today’s serial killer novels. At its heart, it’s a simple formula: these are stories of what happens when pure, unmitigated evil walks the earth. Like BTK, Sandford’s maddog tortures and kills because he enjoys it, not because it brings him any financial gain. His murders, and the games he plays with his police antagonists, serve as an outlet for his fertile and sadistic imagination. The detective in the story, Lucas Davenport, calls maddog “a real freak.”
Stories of malevolent evil in human form aren’t exactly new. They go back to Shakespeare (think of the demi-devil Iago, for one) and to Greek tragedy. Sherlock Holmes foiled some hideous villains in his day, including a father willing to murder his own stepdaughters, and James M. Cain’s Phyllis Nirdlinger, the femme fatale of Double Indemnity, kills repeatedly because she loves death.
Over the past generation, though, serial killer stories have become a conventional genre featuring tortured heroes and particularly monstrous villains. Thomas Harris deserves most of the credit for this publishing phenomenon. As the creator of Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, star of page and screen, Harris stands as the Henry Ford of the modern serial killer story. His 1980s bestsellers Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs provided the template that has enabled the mass production of the product. In Harris’s update of the police procedural, the killer and the detective engage in an extended dance of death that shows their similarities—for both have essentially made a vocation out of murder.
As a genre, crime fiction has always relied heavily on influence and imitation. Before Harris, Lawrence Sanders’s 1971 bestseller The First Deadly Sin showcases the kind of careful forensic research that gives scientific authority to procedural serial killer narrative. Before Sanders, there was John D. MacDonald, whose books frequently feature morally detached murderers who maim and kill for the pleasure of it. The literary offspring of this lineage fill today’s bookstore shelves. John Sandford is one of the more skillful of today’s crime writers laboring in Harris’s giant shadow.
The case of BTK brings fact and fiction together at an odd angle. What does the case of BTK tell us about the way that we think about anomalous human beings like Dennis Rader? How can we account for a killer who imagines himself as a fictional character?
The Case of the Criminal Case
The criminal case has been a staging ground for a merger of fact and fiction for a long time now. BTK strongly identified with serial killers in both fact and fiction. At the June hearing where he entered his guilty plea, Dennis Rader showed off his own reading in criminology when he explained his BTK behavior in terms of “the different phases” of a serial killer. BTK also used fiction as a basis for his facts; that is, his real-life criminal imagination has been inspired at least partly by crime novels like Sandford’s.
Forty years ago, Truman Capote started with fact—a brutal 1959 quadruple murder in Holcombe, Kansas, and its aftermath—and turned those real-life events into what he called a nonfiction novel, the 1965 classic In Cold Blood. (Recent research has revealed that Capote injected plenty of fiction into his true story.) Thomas Harris drew on the actions of real-life serial murderers (such as Ed Gein and John Wayne Gacy) in his creation of Hannibal Lecter. If Harris inspired John Sandford (which is likely) and Sandford inspired BTK (which he evidently did), then the border between fact and fiction has lots of holes in it, and imaginary and real-life cases empty into each other.
What are we talking about when we talk about a case, anyway? Besides criminal cases, there are medical cases (a patient complaining that he can’t eat, can’t sleep—why?) and legal cases (neighbor sues neighbor because an underground oil tank is leaking—whose fault is it?). There are also cases for scientists, private investigators, social workers, management consultants, business school students, even plumbers. Each case has its own professional assignment. Doctors, lawyers, and law enforcement professionals speak with assurance about cases in their fields, but their expertise stays within disciplinary boundaries. The problem is that cases don’t observe these boundaries themselves. What all cases have in common is a telos, or goal orientation. Cases frame problems to be solved by the application of reason and training. The training tends to be field-specific, but the reasoning mind ranges widely. So cases tend to escape their assigned boxes a lot. A case in any one field is liable to draw from other fields, and often does. Cases are disciplinary and interdisciplinary at the same time.
The implications of this messy boundary crossing affect the way we think and feel about both the cases and their subjects. Consider how the criminal case affects the medical case, for example. Medical humanist Kathryn Hunter has written a book on medical case histories which details the way that doctors have used the case study to hone their collective self-image as crusaders against disease, rather than for patients. This dangerous teleology of medical discourse pushes disability to the margins (as the incurable case, it gets ignored), but it has other problems as well. Most notably, it turns the doctor into Sherlock Holmes, who was an infallible detective, to be sure, but not much for sympathy.
Holmes’s icy detachment helps him detect crime, but it’s not recommended demeanor for a doctor. Detectives don’t need much bedside manner, but it’s long been agreed among the public policy commentariat that medical education needs a greater focus on patients as people rather than vessels for somatic pathologies. Some medical schools have risen to this call by requiring courses in ethics and patient relations, but newly-minted doctors still enter the profession thinking of themselves more as medical detectives than as caregivers. Laypeople still like to think of doctors that way, too: The New York Times Magazine publishes a regular medical case study column featuring rotating doctor-detectives who triumphantly solve the riddles presented by collections of enigmatic symptoms. Clearly, the criminal case model still exerts a powerful influence on the way that the medical profession understands its own cases.
What about the other way around? That is, how does the medical case affect the criminal case? That question leads directly to judgments of good and evil. Medicine is one of many disciplines that has tried to account for what makes people do nasty things to others. There’s a distinct and wide-ranging history to American efforts to account for meanness and cruelty, and that history plays out in various connected arenas.
The medical case meets the criminal case first of all on legal ground, in legal cases. A courtroom is a place where stories compete for legitimacy: the defense and the prosecution fight for narrative control of a set of events. Lawyers—who represent points of view—look for authority wherever they can find it. The history of the early American murder case shows the way that such narrative authority shifted over time. Colonial murder cases relied on religious authority for resolution, following from the belief that all human behavior was subject to religious explanation. The accounts of these early murder cases thus showcased a faith that God knew all human good and evil under the sun. But Enlightenment rationality brought greater ambiguity. By the mid-nineteenth century, says historian Karen Halttunen, human conduct had become “fundamentally resistant to full knowledge, moral comprehension, and full disclosure.” The emergence of the insanity defense in the nineteenth century stands as, among other things, an acknowledgment that some people just can’t be understood. Murder became a mystery, not a revelation of God’s will. Motive became part of that mystery. And legal cases form a collective meditation—and ongoing argument—about the mysteries of human motivation.
Crime fiction not surprisingly has the same focus. Both legal cases and crime stories are forms of storytelling, after all, and they’re subject to some of the same influences. At the same time that lawyers have been arguing about what makes people commit horrible crimes, novelists have engaged in those same arguments.
Both lawyers and novelists have been influenced by scientific and medical literature in their efforts to understand the extremes of human behavior. Cesare Lombroso, the famous nineteenth-century anthropologist of criminal behavior, tried to reduce criminal tendencies to physical types. Writers of horror stories have tried to do the same thing: Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, suggests that human evil has a physical nature. Like Lombroso’s “born criminals,” Edward Hyde has atavistic looks; he is variously described as “ape-like” and “troglodytic.” Lombroso’s research has been mainly discredited over time, but not before it shaped the development of criminology and many other fields. Stevenson’s novel has influenced many of the same fields, even as it was influenced by them. As the title suggests, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde uses the same scientific vocabulary as Lombroso’s treatises on “criminal man.” Moreover, Stevenson’s vision has shown considerable staying power. His Jekyll-Hyde dyad has become a practically universal symbol. It is no exaggeration to say that by giving readers a readily accessible metaphor for inner conflict, Stevenson has affected the way that people imagine good and evil. As observers try to reconcile Dennis Rader as Boy Scout Troop Leader and Dennis Rader as sadistic BTK murderer, I think we can expect a fair number of Jekyll-Hyde comparisons.
The Case of Meanness
Such similarities point to an unacknowledged convergence. When people kill other people on purpose, the criminal case, the medical case, and the legal case all come together and borrow tools and explanations from each other. These interchanges take place while practitioners keep their own cases planted in their own fields.
Crime stories display this cross-fertilization among fields, showing how cases borrow from everywhere. Crime narrative reflects the changing ingredients of the criminal case, and their proportions in the mix—and the past half-century shows some significant changes in the way that the criminal case is being concocted.
In Cold Blood registers and records some of the changes that have shaped the criminal case over time. Capote’s nonfiction novel sets the stage for the serial killer stories (both factual and fictional) that followed in its wake. In Cold Blood is a story of sudden murder: Herb Clutter, the pillar of a Kansas farming community, is killed along with his wife and two children for no apparent reason. The murderers, ex-cons named Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, turn out to be both vicious and bumbling at the same time, like walking lightning that can strike someone without warning.
Capote tells the story of the Clutter murders in terms of oppositions. On one hand, there is the legal narrative of the criminal case (the violence, the forensics, the pursuit of the criminals), and the legal case (a straightforward trial in which the state proves that Smith and Hickok brutally slaughtered four people for personal gain). The state argued, in effect, that the two murderers were evil, and prosecutors succeeded in getting the death penalty for them.
On the other hand, there is the psychiatric testimony, the medical case. Dr. W. Mitchell Jones, the psychiatrist for the defense team, was not allowed to testify during the trial because of a narrow judicial interpretation of the insanity defense, but Capote reproduces the doctor’s findings all the same. By offering up what the psychiatrist would have said—that Hickok had “a severe character disorder” and Smith a “severe mental illness”—Capote offers an alternative scientific explanation for the murderers’ criminal behavior.
Capote also opposes Hickok and Smith themselves. He stresses Smith’s sensitivity, the cruelty and abusiveness of his upbringing, and the motorcycle accident that left him lame and in constant pain. Hickok, on the other hand, receives a frightening portrayal. In a story carefully seeded with Adam and Eve imagery, Capote describes Dick as “fleshless,” with a dragon tattoo and a “serpentine” left eye. Smith becomes an abused child grown up, a psychiatric case history of a damaged kid gone horribly wrong. By contrast, Hickok is the snake in the garden: evil incarnate. Capote uses each murderer to represent a different way of looking at murder. Smith is one kind of case, Hickok another.
The crafted contrast of the cases of Hickok and Smith in In Cold Blood corresponds to the crime fiction of Capote’s time—specifically, to what might be called a tale of two MacDonalds. Almost exact contemporaries who started writing at about the same time, John D. MacDonald and Ross Macdonald (a pseudonym for Kenneth Millar) wrote collections of hard-boiled crime novels that range through many of the issues and debates of the 1960s. Ross Macdonald’s sympathetic, therapeutic vision was much-celebrated at the time. He received more acclaim than any American crime writer since Raymond Chandler, appearing on the cover of Newsweek and page one of the New York Times Book Review. Macdonald’s cases linked the problems of the present to the excesses of the past, and so were of a piece with the searching conflicts of the American sixties. Macdonald relied on labyrinthine family plots involving impersonation, reversal, and grown child witnesses of long-ago misdeeds in order to enforce the notion that everything and everybody are connected by chains of circumstantial responsibility. The only crime novelist to treat the sixties generation gap with sensitivity, Macdonald used his series detective Lew Archer (who appeared in eighteen novels between 1949 and 1976) as a walking vessel for collective guilt. Often acting more like a psychiatrist than a detective, Archer uncovers the complex genealogy of the murders he investigates. The solution typically pulls together a web of people and makes them all accountable.
John D. MacDonald’s view of evil was less medical and more Manichean. John D. MacDonald’s novels focused not only on topical conflicts and corruption, but also on evil itself. Against the grain of the times, MacDonald believed in “a kind of evil which defies the Freudian explanations of the psychologists, and the environmental explanations of the sociologists.” This evil, which exists “for the sake of itself,” appears again and again in MacDonald’s books in the form of Nazi torturers, philandering black widowers, truncheon-loving policemen, and hired killers who enjoy their work a little too much. Both MacDonalds are moralists, but John D.’s vision of evil has deeper roots in the pre-Enlightenment past. Like BTK, MacDonald’s villains do cruel things just for the fun of it.
In the 1982 song “Nebraska,” Bruce Springsteen imagines the thoughts of Charles Starkweather, an infamous mass murderer whose 1957-1958 Midwestern killing spree inspired the movie Badlands. Accompanied by his fourteen year-old girlfriend Caril Fugate, Starkweather killed ten people before being apprehended. He was executed in 1959, and Springsteen imagines him just before his own death. Asked why he did what he did, the “Nebraska” narrator answers, “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
Springsteen joins generations of crime story writers in chasing that meanness. The pursuit resembles doctors chasing disease and detectives chasing criminals. They all join a centuries-long line of thinkers who have tried to understand human meanness. Cultural critic Andrew Delbanco describes an oscillation in American life between an Augustinian search for evil within the self (where it’s felt as lack of grace) and a search for evil outside the self, where the search takes the form of demonizing an opponent.
Serial killer stories function in our time as a collective form of demonization. BTK will almost certainly be rendered in the way that Capote drew Dick Hickok: as a monster whose violence stems from his inhuman evil. That process has already begun; quickie books have already been written about the BTK case, and more meditative ones will undoubtedly follow soon. The sole counterpoint to the creation of BTK as a monster—a term even Dennis Rader used to describe himself in his interviews with police—has come from the homiletic comments by Rader’s pastor, Rev. Michael Clark, who has visited Rader in jail twice a week. (Rader’s wife Paula was granted an emergency divorce in July, and his grown children have not communicated with him since his arrest.) Maybe BTK is an inhuman creature, but that’s a simple explanation, maybe too simple. BTK lived among his neighbors for years. He ate with them, went to church with them, raised a family in their midst. To say now that he’s not one of them—one of us—seems implausible in many ways. The equation of Rader to a monster deliberately limits perspective. Such assertions result from packaging meanness into labeled case-study boxes.
Of course there’s an understandable desire to create distance from a murderer like BTK. Serial killers represent a lot of different threats to self and society at once—they’re loathsome reminders of negative human capacity. The portrayal of serial killers as monsters may reflect a collective desire to escape responsibility for that capacity (as Delbanco implies), or it may result from the loss of authority of psychoanalysis in the US and the consequent emphasis on negative freedom (“freedom from”) over positive freedom (“freedom to”). Or there may be other social causes (I’ve argued elsewhere, for example, that the rise of the serial killer story may be linked to the rise in outpatient care of the mentally ill). Whatever the reasons, there’s been a move toward meanness, and attention must be paid.
Mad Dogs and American Men
Sandford’s Rules of Prey, the book that BTK linked himself to, typifies today’s serial killer fiction in its presentation of a case study that it proceeds to disregard. Sandford provides a psychological origin story for maddog, his unfeeling and amoral killer. Neglected by his widowed father, maddog grows up friendless, devising cruel games to substitute for his dead mother’s love. (Mortally wounded by detective Lucas Davenport at the end of the book, his last word is “Mom?”) But this possible explanation for maddog’s behavior ultimately matters not a whit. It matters only that he should be killed.
This widespread disregard for sympathetic identification with the criminal marks how the times have changed. Consider the Leopold and Loeb trial of 1924, where two confessed thrill-killers faced the death penalty. Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were as repulsive as it gets: two privileged and talented young men who plotted a “perfect crime,” murdering fourteen year-old Bobby Franks just to prove to themselves that they could do it. Their Chicago trial attracted extensive national attention, much of it from observers who wanted to see them executed.
Despite pleading guilty, Leopold and Loeb were allowed to introduce psychiatric testimony on their own behalf. An extensively documented medical case resulted, as the defense, led by Clarence Darrow, argued that Leopold and Loeb suffered from multiple physical, mental, and sexual pathologies. The prosecution not surprisingly disagreed with that approach. State’s attorney Robert Crowe tarred the defendants with many epithets, describing them most notably as “snakes” and “mad dogs.” But sympathy won the day in 1924, even for two of the most arrogant murderers in American history. Clarence Darrow’s twelve-hour summation brought tears to the eyes of many in the courtroom, including the sentencing judge. Leopold and Loeb escaped the death penalty.
The judge let Leopold and Loeb live because he felt that we needed to learn about them. The crime fiction of the past fifty years shows especially clearly how we’re looking at meanness these days: with less and less desire to understand it. This change clearly has political implications, but they’re not the kind that translate readily into right- or left-wing political debate. Instead, they point to a wholesale social movement away from sympathy.
Two linked crime stories by William P. McGivern, written about a generation apart, exemplify this movement. In the novella “Killer On the Turnpike,” originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in January, 1961, McGivern imagines a killer, Harry Bogan, who gets an erotic charge from his victims’ fear. The case study explanation for Bogan’s motivation, though, is more sad and pathetic than menacing: after his brother leaves home to get married and his mother dies, Bogan feels lonely and abandoned—and homicidally jealous of young lovers. Pursued by the police off a highway bridge into the water below, he dies in tears, looking for “someone to comfort him, someone he wasn’t afraid of.”
McGivern essentially rewrote “Murder On the Turnpike” in 1975 as a full-length novel, Night of the Juggler. Shifting the setting from the New Jersey Turnpike to New York’s Central Park, McGivern renders the police pursuit of a once-a-year serial murderer known as The Juggler (for his preference for the jugular vein) who kills a young woman every October 15th. Like Harry Bogan, the Juggler turns out to be an abandoned child who has been left all alone in the world. A hulking, severely retarded young man whose mother had been killed by a careless driver, the Juggler can’t find the culprit, “so he began looking for someone else.” Like Harry Bogan in “Murder On the Turnpike,” the Juggler is pursued relentlessly by a policeman named Tonelli (McGivern carries the name over from the earlier story) before he can kill a female hostage. Unlike Harry Bogan, the Juggler is a compulsive mental primitive. Illiterate and nonverbal, the Juggler responds to uncanny biorhythms that tell him when a year has passed and he must kill again.
In the early sixties, McGivern imagines a damaged but recognizably human killer as the target of community pursuit. When he reimagines the same story in the mid-seventies, his murderer becomes a “trapped animal” whose impulses rule his consciousness and whose humanity is harder to locate. McGivern’s message is clear enough in both stories: if anyone had noticed Harry Bogan, he might not have become the killer on the turnpike. If anyone had cared enough about Gus Soltik to pay attention to him, he might not have become The Juggler. But McGivern’s Faulkneresque portrayal of The Juggler as someone of inchoate awareness and minimal capacity to reason suggests that we don’t need to understand criminality because there’s nothing much to understand. Abused by his mother and then abandoned by her death, Gus Soltik turns into a kind of hurt, violent animal. McGivern’s many novels convey a generally compassionate view of the world, but these two versions of the same basic story reflect a diminishing need to understand the impulse to murder. The explanations don’t matter anymore: John Sandford’s maddog may be insane or not, but his cruelty trumps any medically-based explanations for his behavior. The well-intended medical rationale serves, in fact, to separate maddog and his ilk from the human race.
This alienation results from a socially corrosive mixture of the medical, criminal, and legal case studies. First we construct the murderer as a pathological case. This maneuver draws the medical case study into the service of the legal. Originally designed to protect the accused and efface his responsibility for his horrible deeds, this strategy also protects an optimistic view of human nature and a concomitant view that people are socially connected to one another. But by drawing the lines to exclude the murderer from this communal vision, we become exclusive, reserving the category of “human” for those who behave nicely and maintain these communal ties. Thus we objectify the murderer and turn him into a monster, an animal, a killing machine. But then we turn around and call the machine evil—which is impossible, because machines can’t be evil. So the murderer must be human after all. Or is he? At BTK’s plea hearing, the son of one of BTK’s victims called his mother’s killer “a rotting corpse of a wretch of a human hiding under a human veneer.” The difficulty in parsing this epithet (a human hiding under a human veneer?) points to what I’m talking about: a tangle of sympathy and revulsion, and a pervasive ambiguity about where connections exist and where they don’t.
Our crime fiction acts as a barometer for the way we feel. It describes the confusion, renders the paradox, and captures the irony: stereotypical liberal compassion provides a pathological, disease-oriented explanation for human cruelty, but this explanation leads to the exile of the murderer from the human community on the grounds that he’s not one of “us.” The compassionate gesture has a decidedly uncompassionate side to it, then. The stereotypically conservative argument explains cruelty as resulting from human depravity, innate or otherwise. Halttunen shows how the depravity argument has deep roots in a community-oriented religious view of sin which embraces the murderer and his sins. There was once sympathy in this embrace, but we don’t see it much these days.
These are the worst of times because we’ve borrowed the worst from both sides of the debate about criminal motive and responsibility. We follow the medical case to the conclusion that the criminal is not human. From the religious view it challenged, we hold onto the idea that the criminal needs to be punished for his depravity. The two postulates then combine: the criminal is depraved, which is a human quality, but he’s still not human. We’re left with all the merciless rigidity of religiously-motivated crime and punishment, coupled with a clinical focus on diagnosis and categorization that precludes the human responsibility to be confessed to, the human failure that’s supposedly being punished.
Each of these views once came with its own form of compassion, but that part has essentially been discarded. According to the logic of Rules of Prey and scores of books like it—and according to how real-life murders are treated in our public sphere—mad dogs need to be killed, not interviewed. When they are interviewed, though, the coverage gets a lot of attention from a fascinated public. Dennis Rader’s BTK confession was a hit in the ratings and on the internet. Such spectacles of real-life serial killers bring monster novels to life. Onlookers marvel at a person who—like the imaginary Hannibal Lecter—can be a subhuman killer, yet also a cunning and manipulative imposter whose cleverness enables him to live without detection in communities of law-abiding people. The frisson that people get from watching real-life Lecter knock-offs like BTK compares to the reaction we might imagine getting from a talking snake—which is, after all, Satan’s classic role.
Serial killer novels follow the tone of the times: animals are somehow evil, and mad dogs need to be separated from human beings. Confession has little significance anymore, except to close the criminal case. Within the past half-century, legal and medical cases have come together to form a wall of alienation that separates our criminals from the rest of us. Colonial Americans once applied the death penalty for bestiality not only to the human being who fornicated with the animal, but also to the animal, which was also executed. It appears that not much has changed: we still consider animals to be evil today.
Even a deeply humanistic novel like To Kill a Mockingbird shows this alienation, as Harper Lee pits her hero, Atticus Finch, against a different mad dog. First the non-violent Atticus has to kill an actual rabid dog on Main Street. Finch, a onetime dead shot who gave away his guns years before, has no choice, for the mad dog (which is “dedicated to one course and motivated by an invisible force”) will charge anything it sees. It is the literal embodiment of deadly random violence.
Later in the novel Atticus has to engage another mad dog, this one in human form. Bob Ewell, the poor white man who instructs his daughter to lie about being raped by a black man, comes after Atticus after being humiliated by Atticus on the witness stand in court. Ewell swears revenge on Atticus “if it took the rest of his life.” Atticus assumes that Ewell is bluffing (even though Ewell spits in his face), and this mistake almost costs the lawyer his children. After Ewell has been killed by Boo Radley at the end of the book before he can murder Jem and Scout Finch, this telling fragment of conversation passes between Atticus and the sheriff:
Atticus shook his head. “I can’t conceive of a man who’d—”
“Mr. Finch, there’s just some kind of men you have to shoot before you can say hidy to them.”
Harper Lee wrote her classic novel in 1960, when the Civil Rights movement was cresting. Lee’s rendering of Atticus Finch’s nonviolent struggle against racism in the South clearly owes a lot to the shining example of Martin Luther King, whose struggles were transforming Lee’s native Alabama at the time. Atticus’s towering integrity makes him one of the great principled heroes of all American literature.
But even as Lee celebrates her own example of a man who fights peacefully inside the law, she raises some disturbing questions. Atticus’s opponent is someone who has no use for the law at all. Like the mad dog, Bob Ewell is violence personified, a threat to civilization. The sheriff argues that Ewell needed to be killed, not shamed or reasoned with—and the sheriff will succeed in persuading Atticus to avoid any inquiry into his death (“Bob Ewell fell on his knife,” he insists afterwards). Ewell’s death will never become a legal case.
The Ewell plot in To Kill a Mockingbird bears a resemblance (an uncomfortable one, perhaps) to a classic from a different genre, John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners, a book which has been made into two popular movies called Cape Fear. MacDonald’s 1957 novel also features a criminal seeking revenge on a lawyer. As in To Kill a Mockingbird, the ultimate solution to the lawyer’s problem lies outside the law. Like Bob Ewell of Mockingbird, lawyer Sam Bowden’s nemesis, Max Cady, lurks on the edges of peaceful domestic existence and terrorizes a whole family. The law can’t block or catch the “rogue beast” Cady, so Bowden turns his home into an armed fortress and shoots his nemesis dead. The act brings him “savage satisfaction” and “primitive fulfillment.” John D. MacDonald wrote The Executioners a few years before Harper Lee (who helped Truman Capote with his Kansas interviews for In Cold Blood) published her only novel. The Executioners and To Kill a Mockingbird suggest that principle is admirable, but that mad violence can only be stopped by a bullet or a knife. The mild, well-intentioned heroes of these novels finally have to take up arms and kill human beasts.
The BTK plea and sentencing hearings debated, in effect, whether Dennis Rader is one such beast. These public hearings turned into displays of ritual narrative for both the state and the criminal. On one side was Rader, who showed a restrained but nevertheless clear attraction for the spotlight shining on him. To accompany his official guilty plea he offered a frighteningly dispassionate account of his murders. (He showed somewhat more feeling at his sentencing, making a rambling speech about his hope for heavenly redemption.) On the other side, the prosecution and the victims used the hearings as a chance to loose their pent-up story. Prosecutors deprived of the need to make their case nonetheless brandished numerous exhibits from their gruesome gallery of evidence. Victims’ relatives, though virtually assured of the maximum sentence allowed by law, confronted Rader to utter threats of damnation. When Rader himself rose to speak, the victims’ family members ceremoniously exited the courtroom en masse.
The verdict was not a matter of life and death because BTK’s last known crime took place before Kansas reinstated capital punishment. Because Dennis Rader will be in prison for the rest of his life, we may have no useful choice but to take the time to try to understand him—even if that’s an old-fashioned goal. The study of predatory human beings meanwhile continues on other fronts. Criminal law, medical science, and stories of good and evil take turns leading each other in a strange dance of inquiry and invention. In the evolving symbiosis between made-up stories and real-life cases, the stories may be taking the lead: The New York Times recently reported that some doctors have been trying to develop quantifiable methods to diagnose and measure evil. One Columbia University psychiatrist has devised a twenty-two point scale for the purpose. This scale might provide some insight into people’s capacity for antisocial acts. Somehow, though, I doubt whether it will solve the case.
In addition to the primary sources I’ve mentioned in this essay, interested readers should look to Karen Halttunen’s excellent Murder Most Foul for an intellectual history of murder cases in early America. Kathryn Hunter’s Doctors’ Stories is the first detailed study of the medical case study; Martha Montello published a more recent analysis of the relationship between narrative and medical ethics in 2002. Annalee Newitz argues that serial killer narratives efface the boundaries between fact and fiction in a 1995 article in CineAction. Andrew Delbanco’s extended argument linking the perception of external evil to the failure of personal responsibility unfolds over several books, beginning with The Puritan Ordeal and extending through The Death of Satan to The Real American Dream, while my own article linking the rise of serial killer fiction to the treatment of the mentally ill appeared in the Minnesota review in 2003. The New York Times report, “For the Worst of Us, the Diagnosis May Be ‘Evil,’” appeared on February 8, 2005.