The Silence of the Lame: Real Serial Killers Are Dumber Than Their Fictional Equivalents

From Mystery Tribune:

When I was a teenager, I read a lot of serial killer literature. In the 1990s, such novels dominated the bestseller lists; you couldn’t walk into a bookstore without spying titles by Dean Koontz, Thomas Harris, Patricia Cornwell, and their contemporaries on the front shelves.

These novels featured familiar characters moving on well-worn tracks. Usually, a genius serial killer with a very unusual modus operandi killed a rapidly escalating number of victims. A detective (often tortured, thanks to a traumatic childhood, or a bad marriage, or a dead loved one…) hunted the killer using some unorthodox technique. As the killer rushed to complete some sort of “grand plan,” the detective closed in, with a cat-and-mouse climax taking place in some remote location (without the possibility of backup, at least until a properly deus ex machina moment).

The serial-killer subgenre isn’t dead; I recently finished reading Meg Gardiner’s “Unsub,” which I thought executed on the necessary tropes rather well. That being said, the fictional serial killer has become a somewhat passé creature, and many agents and publishers pass on manuscripts in which they lurk. Even Thomas Harris, the man who kicked off so many of the subgenre’s trends with his novels featuring elegant cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter, has elected to focus on something completely different in his next book.

Interest in real-life serial killers, meanwhile, seems to be on something of an upswing. Netflix recently released “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” a four-episode review of Ted Bundy’s ignoble career as a serial killer (and, eventually, true-crime celebrity). It joins an upcoming feature film, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” in which Zac Efron plays Bundy.

Watching the Bundy documentary, I had a revelation. To boil it down to one sentence: Ted Bundy was a moron.

. . . .

[H]e was impulsive and sloppy, and his attempt to carry out his own defense at his trial was a spectacular mockery of competency. He might have been caught much more quickly if police departments across the country had shared databases, and had access to current technology; it’s impossible picturing him carrying out quite the same spree in the modern era.

Link to the rest at Mystery Tribune

The OP reminded PG of a lunch conversation he had with a fellow attorney many years ago.

PG was discussing a criminal client he had been assigned to defend (prior to public defenders in that part of the state) whose mishaps during the course of an attempted crime had been described in open court that morning (and were thus no longer covered by PG’s attorney-client confidentiality obligations).

In short, PG’s client and a criminal associate had been hired to burn down a house located in a rural area by the owner of the house so the owner could collect money from a homeowner’s insurance policy.

Per the earlier in-court testimony, the two defendants couldn’t set the house on fire. They tried various techniques, but the fire kept going out.

Finally, after a trip to a local gas station, PG’s client climbed up into the attic with a large can full of gasoline. He poured a little gas in a corner of the attic (it was unfinished with no floor), but the fire looked like it was going out. PG’s client then emptied the entire can of gasoline onto the small fire.

There were no more problems with the fire going out. A big fireball flared up and much of the attic started to burn.

PG’s client lost his footing as he leaped back and fell through the floor of the attic, landing on the next floor down, spraining an ankle and breaking his arm. With the help of the criminal associate, PG’s client limped out of the house and the two headed to the emergency room, smelling of smoke and gasoline.

Following a phone call from the hospital, the local sheriff’s department had little difficulty tracking down the two alleged perpetrators. One lesson from the morning’s hearing was that crime didn’t pay. Another was that treating criminals in the emergency room didn’t pay the doctor and hospital very well either.

PG’s lunch companion observed that it was fortunate that most local criminals were not very smart because most of the local deputies were not very smart either. It was a match that protected the local citizenry very well.

11 thoughts on “The Silence of the Lame: Real Serial Killers Are Dumber Than Their Fictional Equivalents”

  1. I remember coming to a similar conclusion while reading Helter Skelter. Admittedly, I take a lot of what’s in there with a grain of salt (it seems an odd coincidence that in a book written by the prosecutor, everyone involved is a complete moron except the people in the prosecutor’s office), but it did seem like the Manson family and the police were in a race to see who could be the dumbest.

    • After reading Jeff Guinn’s superb biography of Manson a few years back I was left with the same opinion. A similar dynamic played out in the Patty Hearst case.

  2. After the BTK killer was caught, someone local said that the years it took to catch him was more about the stupidity of law enforcement than the brilliance of the doofus who did the killings.

    In fiction, I am not a fan of serial killers. Glorfied sadism by an OCD killer is boring.

    • His last murder was in 1991. There was no indication of any activity until 2004 when he started writing to police and a TV station. He was tracked down due to the contacts he made with police.

    • I loathe the glorification of murderers in all of its forms, from serial killer shows like Dexter (“But he only kills serial killers now, he’s a GOOD killer!”) to shows that glorify the Mafia like The Sopranos.

      I do appear to be in the minority, though.

      • I’m with you. The only time it gets interesting is when mass murders take over a country, and then it becomes history and not crime.

      • I agree with you, Meryl. I don’t get the appeal for these kinds of things, even in fictional characters (I’m reminded of one from the TV show The Walking Dead, who is getting a new life on the spinoff show). I can get being curious about why they do the things they do, but to be fans? Um, no.

  3. Their noses probably aren’t as sensitive as Hannibal Lecter’s was, either. They wouldn’t know if Jodie Foster was in the cell block.

  4. PG: The continuing story: your guy fell through the attic, injured himself, and then sued the homeowner under his homeowner’s policy for failure to provide a safe place to work. [Pls forgive my enhancement on your story – I was around courtrooms too long].

    • I didn’t hear about that, but it was certainly a possibility, John.

      I hadn’t thought about whether he might be a statutory employee of the homeowner or just an independent contractor.

  5. Thinking of Bundy, I once calculated that on three different occasions I was within a mile of his travels. I was slim, young and had long, straight hair. His type, more or less. I would have likely gone to the aid of someone who appeared injured, because we lived in somewhat more trusting times.

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