Murder on the Installment Plan

Becca Rothfeld in The Hedgehog Review:

Begin, for once, with the ending: the arms at an awful angle, the face blue-lipped above a blot of blood. Only later do we glimpse the woman who corresponds to the corpse. She laughs in a flashback. Or she smiles in the photograph pinned to the board where the police map the murders with thumbtacks, charting tangled speculations with lines of yarn. In light of her death, she comes to life. This is the antiordering typical of the serial killer procedural, a narrative scramble that begins with the answer and ages back toward the question. In the television series Hannibal (NBC, 2013–15), a convicted murderer impales a nurse in prison. He snaps at the officers who come to question him, “I was caught red-handed. There’s no mystery as to who done it. I did it!” Still, the officers insist that they have something to ask.

We know who did it, but the mystery of motive remains. It recurs in the spate of serial killer dramas that have proliferated in recent years, multiplying as fast as the gruesome murders we watch so raptly each week. In Mindhunter (2017–), a Netflix series set in the mid-seventies, a professor of behavioral science at the FBI Academy observes that murder has become inscrutable. In the past, people killed each other for reasons: The culprit was always the jilted lover or the cheated business partner, the cuckolded husband or the scheming heir. To solve the puzzle, we only had to track the reasons back to their sources. But beginning in the seventies, when “Son of Sam” murderer David Berkowitz shot six people “because a dog told him to,” the killer became “a black hole.” “Where do we go,” the professor asks, “when motive becomes elusive?”

More here.