I still remember the thrill of reading my first Jonathan Kellerman novel. It was not, in fact, his first book, but his second. I soon read his first and was a faithful reader of each book as it came out for many years, as were millions of others.
By Jonathan Kellerman hit the scene, murderers were bad, but pretty much like you and me. They killed for money or for love or for revenge and if they killed more than one person they did so for logical reasons, generally to cover up for their first murder. The manner of murder has been also usually pretty straight forwarded and the authors did not spend much time on the gruesome detail. The detectives were either “proper” detectives in that they were policemen or professional investigators, or they were completely ordinary people who kept on falling into murderous situations. In 1985, with the publication of Kellerman’s first book, this all changed.
We must remember that the term “serial killer” was only coined in the 1970s and that the type of “Ted Bundy” murderer who was thus labeled was relatively rare prior to then. So when Kellerman started to write about people who killed for kicks, who killed for the pleasure of it rather than for a rational reason, and started to concentrate on the actual killings themselves, this was all very new to us – and undoubtedly thrilling.
While Kellerman’s baddies were in many ways badder than we were used to, his goodies did not hold fast to the stereotypes either. Alex Delaware, star of almost all Kellerman’s books, is a psychologist, with a close relationship to a cop, Milo, who happens to be very ugly and very gay. They are good and kind and we could not get confused between who is on the right side and who is on the wrong one.
Kellerman thrilled us by breaking a literary barrier, and a number of other writers – for example, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs and James Patterson – followed close on his heels, creating a whole new sub-genre of the murder mystery.
When I read the first of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – I experienced a similar thrill, and so did millions of others. Once again a barrier had been broken, but what exactly is it?
I believe that what has changed here is that Larsson’s goodies and baddies are not that easily told apart. The protagonists who should be on the side of right and good do most decidedly bad things. The baddies are bad, indeed, but one does find oneself asking, at times, if they have not been as much sinned against as sinning. The “heroine” is extremely peculiar and certainly does not conform to a standard set of moral values. She is, I think, the archetype of the modern (western) human being – totally self absorbed, completely sure that her individual needs and desires are paramount and interested only in achieving her own goals.
In reading this trilogy we become less sure of the moral divide, which creates dissonance, turns our expectations on our heads and… thrills us.
I’m fascinated to see whether this particular thrill will be as easily emulated as Kellerman’s was, or whether this trilogy will remain a stand-alone phenomenon. I’m also agog to know what the next barrier to go will be.