Monday, November 9, 2009

'Dexter' vs. Dexter

Posted By on Mon, Nov 9, 2009 at 9:28 PM

Design

The “Dexter” Season 4 episode reviews have been shrink-wrapped to an autopsy table in an unknown location, and will have to be postponed indefinitely. Let’s kill time before the rescue with the new hardback Dexter By Design (Doubleday, $25) and consider how Michael C. Hall’s secret serial killer resembles the original creation of writer Jeff Lindsay.

The author introduced the perfectly-assimilated predatory sociopath in Darkly Dreaming Dexter. Published in 2004, the award-winning mystery served, rather loosely, as the basis for the 12 episodes of the Showtime series’ first season. Since then, the show’s continuity has diverged dramatically from the books. Sgt. Doakes, Dexter’s Javert-like police nemesis, was killed in the show’s second season but still lives on the page, if in a horribly maimed fashion. From Dexter’s perspective as the first-person narrator, his homicidal impulses, nicknamed “The Dark Passenger” manifests more like a secondary personality who keeps watch on Dexter’s consciousness.

The fourth book, like the show’s fourth season, begins with Dexter married to Rita, only Dexter by Design first finds the couple as newlyweds in Paris, not as sleep-deprived parents of a new infant. Dexter by Design sees our antihero thoroughly pwned by a pranksterish nutjob with a grisly artistic bent. Miami’s latest human butcher puts dead bodies on display in ghastly parody of South Florida tourist behavior. (Lindsay makes a passing nod to Carl Hiassen’s Tourist Season, which features a home-grown terrorist cell with similar anti-tourist motivations.) Staying one step ahead, the killer discovers Dexter’s true identity and targets his loved ones.

Alas, outwitting the narrator of Dexter By Design does not seem like that much of a challenge. The concept of the Dexter character is that his benign, regular-guy exterior conceals a murderer as bloodthirsty and ingenious as Hannibal Lecter. I’ve never read one of Lindsay’s books before, but the latest could just as easily, it seems, be called Drastically Dunderheaded Dexter. Dexter forever walks into traps, badly underestimates his sister’s boyfriend, various law-enforcement personnel and even his own step kids. His assessment of his intellectual and hunting skills seems woefully over-inflated. It’s kind of like the way, in Looney Tunes, the Roadrunner’s antagonist has a business card that says “Wile E. Coyote, Genius,” but he can’t get any of his deathtraps from the Acme Company to work.

Arguably Dexter is off his game in By Design because the once emotionless sociopath discovers stirring of genuine feelings for his sister Deb, his stepkids and even his wife. It’s hard to sympathize much with him because, frankly, he’s pretty much a dick and not nearly has complex as Michael C. Hall’s version of the character. He seems to have little more than contempt for his wife Rita (who, admittedly, comes across as more of an airhead than in Julia Benz’s on-screen portrayal). Chillingly, he bonds with his stepkids because he sees them, especially the young boy Cody, as budding sociopaths just like himself.

Dexter’s internal monologue amounts to a constant stream of sarcastic sophistry. The 20th chapter begins:

First things first has always been my motto, mostly because it makes absolutely no sense – after all, if first things were second or third, they wouldn’t be first things, would they?

He makes so many annoying little observations that you wonder if his mental condition includes a form of autism. The "jokes" badly undermine the character's strength as an outsider observing the rest of the human race. Meanwhile, he can’t shut up about Miami’s terrible traffic (yeah, Dex, we get it), and doesn’t even practice any of that cool “CSI”-style blood spatter analysis.

Things look up late in the book when Dexter pursues the bad guy to Cuba and nearly looses his self-control at the sight of a huge Havana moon. The Cuban interlude, however, amounts to little more than a red herring and seems like a huge waste of an exotic setting. Perhaps Lindsay stinted on research for the book: which offers only cursory portrayals of Paris and Havana and finds most of its clues on Youtube. Maybe Dexter By Design finds the character in the midst of a complex evolution, and he’ll assert himself more forcefully in the next book, tentatively titled Dexter is Delicious. Until then, Dexter of pay cable will remain a cut above the Dexter of the written word.

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