The Philosophy of Serial Killers

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Serial Killers: Being and Killing (Paperback) Edited by S. Waller, Series edited by Fritz Allhoff, Foreword by John M. Doris, book reviewSerial Killers: Being and Killing is part of a series published by Wiley-Blackwell that concentrates on providing a general view of philosophy for those (including this author) who are not experts in the area. Other books in the series concentrate on everyday life issues, including beer, cannabis, porn, cycling and Christmas, amongst others. Serial Killers is probably the most serious subject out of all of them, but it is nevertheless not as hard a read as some people may expect – it really will be quite comprehensible to most people, with only a few complicated terms, such as phenomenology, thrown in every now and again. The book as a whole deals with the reasons behind serial killing: why serial killers behave in the way that they do and how they are viewed by the public. The question of whether serial killers can ever be moral is raised, as is the question of whether we can learn anything from a serial killer’s behaviour.

Each chapter is written by a different author, most of whom are academics, with the exception of the editor, S. Waller who writes both the introduction and one of the chapters later on in the book. The chapters are then divided into six sections. However, it is not immediately obvious why the chapters have been split in this way – it certainly is done very roughly and doesn’t add to the ease of reading the book in any way. The fact that many of the chapters are repetitive, whether classed together in the same section or not, does not help. It seems as though the authors all put together their chapters separately, unaware of the topics that the other authors were covering, and the editor then drew them all together regardless. Of course, this may be very far from being the case, but that is how it appears on first reading.

It is, perhaps, obvious that a number of authors writing on roughly the same topic are going to cover some of the same ground, although with a good editor, this could have been avoided. However, what makes the situation a lot worse is that, although there is a wide variety of serial killers to use as an example, the same ones are brought up time and time again. The most commonly mentioned are Ted Bundy, John Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and fictional serial killers, Dexter and Hannibal Lechter. It is an unfortunate fact that data on serial killers is few and far between – those who have been caught are not always willing to be researched. However, there is enough information out there to allow a little more variety in the choice of serial killers illustrated in the book. A little more mention of non-US serial killers would also have been welcome. With the exception of Jack the Ripper and Ian Brady, the only other non-US killers are only mentioned in passing.

“…Serial Killers: Being and Killing is worth a read, and because of the number of authors involved, it does give a number of different viewpoints.”

Another issue is the use of Dexter and Hannibal Lechter as examples. Of course, the lack of detailed information on real serial killers does have an impact on what the authors can write about – but as this is a book about the philosophy of killing rather than a factual account of serial killers, a little more effort to concentrate on real killers rather than fictional ones would surely have made sense. Dexter in particular is mentioned a great deal in at least four chapters. His case is very interesting, because it raises the possibility of serial killers being moral in some cases, but to repeat this throughout the book is tedious and, more importantly, it feels lazy. No doubt the author of the Dexter books, Jeff Lindsay, did his research and tried to make Dexter as realistic as possible, but the fact remains that he is a fictional character.

On a more positive note, some really interesting ideas are raised in Serial Killers: Being and Killing, and this, after all, fits in with the aim of the series – to make people think about serial killing in different ways. The possibility of serial killers having a positive side is probably the aspect that will interest most people, but there is also a fascinating chapter on attribution bias in court – the example discussed is Doug Clark, a serial killer who may or may not have had an accomplice in the form of his ex-lover, Carol Bundy (no relation to Ted). Certainly Clark claims that he was set up and that Bundy played a much greater role than she was ever charged with. However, looking at the facts (the victims were all women) and presumably lack of evidence, the jury decided that Clark was almost solely guilty. The point made by the author is that, rightly or wrongly, the majority of us would probably react in the same way, because of the way that our mind is set.

There are a couple of odd chapters that, in some ways don’t fit in with the rest of the book, but are nevertheless interesting to read. One is the chapter written by the volume editor, S Waller, which is the transcript of an interview with two police officers who were previously involved with homicide cases. It isn’t particularly eye-opening, but it adds a really human aspect to the book, which is very welcome. There is also a very well-placed, albeit short, chapter on victims and their rights almost at the end. By a lady who works for a victims’ advocacy organisation, who lost a daughter to a murderer, it reminds the reader that there is much more to serial killing than the killer and the victim – the effects on the family of those murdered is long-reaching. Finally, there’s a fascinating timeline of serial killers at the end. Starting with Liu Pengli, who murdered over 100 people in Ancient China, we are introduced to the most commonly known worldwide killers, with a little information on the number of victims and the killer’s eventual fate.

From the point of view of ease of reading, there is very little to complain about here. The language used is simple and it certainly leaves the reader with plenty of food for thought. However, it is a little too familiar and slangy at times, which adds to the sense, rightly or wrongly, that the book hasn’t been very well thought out. If you are looking for something relatively light to read on serial killers, then Serial Killers: Being and Killing is worth a read, and because of the number of authors involved, it does give a number of different viewpoints. However, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously, even though most of the authors have excellent academic backgrounds. If that is what the series editor was hoping to achieve, then he has probably done the right thing. However, there are still too many flaws for it to be considered more than an average book. Three stars out of five.

Advantages: Interesting ideas put forward
Disadvantages: Repetitive, very US-centric

Serial Killers: Being and Killing (Philosophy for Everyone), edited by S. Waller
Published by Wiley-Blackwell, 248 pages.
Thanks to Wiley-Blackwell for a free review copy of the book.

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Serial Killers: Being and Killing (Philosophy for Everyone)
by S. Waller

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Written by sunmeilan

My background is varied. I studied Chinese at Durham University in the UK, Renmin University in Beijing and Nanjing University. I then lived in China for many years, before returning to the UK to study criminology at the London School of Economics, from where I have a Masters. I have published articles on drug treatment and the criminal justice system. Although I have now left this field, I do enjoy crime fiction and reviewing books from this genre. I also have a strong interest in Chinese modern fiction.

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