When I was mentally composing this entry last weekend, before 32 innocents were destroyed in an orgy of bloodshed and madness, I planned to title it “My Favorite Serial Killer.” Gosh, that doesn’t seem like such a clever idea any more.
But I still want to point people to the re-issue of one of the best books I’ve ever read about murder and violence in America, Bradley Denton’s remarkable “Blackburn.” It’s a serial killer book like no other: horrifying and hilarious and heartbreaking and spookily perceptive. It ranks beside Thomas Harris’s “Red Dragon” and Peter Straub’s “The Throat” as a thriller that moves beyond its need to thrill and becomes a genuine work of art.
Too many movies and books, from David Fincher’s excellent “Se7en” to James Patterson’s horrible potboilers, depict serial killers as evil geniuses, planting arcane clues while driven by psychosexual compulsions that only the most brilliant minds in forensic science can hope to unravel. And that’s a crock. Most real-life serial murderers and spree killers are pathetic, not charismatic, Ted Bundy notwithstanding. They’re sucking voids of terrible need, so fixated on their selfish concerns that they barely realize the outside world exists. Finding the mental focus to do the Monday New York Times crossword puzzle would be a challenge to most.
Denton's Jimmy Blackburn is smart, but he's no genius. He's been damaged by the world, and he's done a lot of damage on his own. What makes him worth reading about is his belief in how the world should work and his frustration at how it doesn't work that way. As with Harris's Francis Dolarhyde or Straub's Fee Bandolier, he's a character worthy of our empathy, despite the inexcusability of his actions.
To help promote the new edition of his novel, Denton has posted three Blackburn stories: "Blackburn's Lady," "Blackburn Bakes Cookies" and "Blackburn and the Blade." I recommend them all, though I have some reservations about the last one. (It contains explicit supernatural elements, and, in my opinion, Blackburn and the occult shouldn't mix.) I also recommend that you read the novel first and the stories later.
Maybe nobody’s in the mood for “Blackburn” right now, and that’s completely understandable. But it's a book that shouldn't be ignored. It tells the truth, even if we don't want to hear it.