by David Ramsay Steele
Arthur Mitchell, the misnamed Trinity Killer, surmises for one fleeting moment that Dexter aspires to be a vigilante (“The Getaway,” Season 4). Our Dex, however doesn’t want to be a vigilante, though the net result is that he acts just like one. Well, maybe not just like a vigilante: occasionally saving killers from being picked up by the police so that he can have the satisfaction of slaughtering them himself isn’t VSOP (vigilante standard operating procedure). But even this Dexter quirk has its helpful side: it does save the taxpayer all that expensive crap about appeals, psychiatric evaluations, and maybe in some cases, life sentences for the killers (which come with a life sentence for the taxpayers who have to feed, clothe, accommodate, and entertain them.
Dexter the Just Man
One hundred and four years before Season 1 of Dexter, when the word “vigilante” was still confined to westerns and was fairly obscure even there, and the term “serial killer” had not even been coined, Edgar Wallace published The Four Just Men. It instantly became, and remained for the next fifty years, a super-hyper-mega-bestseller, and was followed up by several sequels, both novels and collections of stories, including The Three Just Men (there had really only been three all along)."
The Just Men are rich, well-connected (one is a European
prince), ruthless, cosmopolitan individuals with secret lives and a
secret plan. They ingeniously conspire to assassinate evil-doers
who have somehow escaped the law. In the main story of the first
book, however, their target is not an especially wicked person,
merely somewhat misguided, in their opinion, about current politics. The Just Men publicly announce that they will kill the British
Foreign Secretary (equivalent to Secretary of State) if a certain piece
of legislation goes through the British Parliament. It does and they
do. Good job, killers! Sometimes even non-evil persons may have
to be eliminated, in the interest of the greater struggle against evil.
The Four Just Men is not a whodunnit but a howwilltheydoit:
how can the Just Men manage to kill the illustrious cabinet minister at a precise pre-announced time, under the eyes of the entire
Metropolitan Police Force and the secret service? The Just Men
always keep their word to the very letter, so it’s understood that if
they don’t succeed in killing the minister at exactly that time, they
will have to abandon the attempt to kill him altogether.
If we want to understand why our cuddly monster Dex is a true
hero of our time, we can begin by asking why nothing like The
Four Just Men could possibly be a major hit in the early twenty-first
Both the Just Men and Dexter kill bad guys. Both the Just Men
and Dexter have secret lives, respectable public faces contrasting
with their clandestine callings. Both the Just Men and Dexter are
dedicated, disciplined, charming, muy sympatico. Both the Just
Men and Dexter are, if you want to get technical about it, murderers, serial killers, dangerous criminals who, if caught, would be
executed. Both the Just Men and Dexter are strongly identified with
by readers or viewers, who want them to keep on getting away
with their killing.
As far as I know, there were no protests or complaints about the
morality of the Just Men. I’ve come across several disdainful references to Wallace in writings of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
Snobbish literary people dismissed Wallace, along with Agatha
Christie, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and sometimes even the Sherlock
Holmes canon, as vulgar and escapist. They considered this stuff to
be trash, though many of the literary intellectuals who took this line
still thoroughly enjoyed reading that kind of slickly-executed trash.
But I have not encountered anyone from that period saying that
there is something unhealthy about encouraging millions of readers to identify sympathetically with people who cold-bloodedly
break the law in myriad ways, and commit numerous murders for
which, if caught, they would be executed. And this was at a time
when hardly anyone doubted that such people should be executed.
Rooting for a Killer
When we turn to Dexter and our own time, things are different.
Dexter is continually being denounced by people whose denunciations are well publicized. The Parents Television Council (PTC),
which claims membership of over a million, has called for action
against advertisers who support Dexter, and has repeatedly agitated
for confining Dexter to cable and keeping it off the broadcast channels. Although explicitly concerned about sex, violence, and profanity in TV shows which might be watched by children, the PTC is
well aware that Dexter does not have a higher level of sex, violence,
and profanity than some other shows, but still singles Dexter out as
the worst offender because (as their President, Timothy F. Winter,
puts it) “the series compels viewers to empathize with a serial killer,
to root for him to prevail, to hope he doesn’t get discovered.”
There must be more to it than that, though. To pick just one
obvious example, since 1844, readers of The Count of Monte Cristo have been “compelled” by Dumas’s storytelling magic to
empathize with Edmond Dantes, root for him to prevail, hope he
doesn’t get discovered. And Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo,
like the Just Men, is literally a serial killer. What’s going on here?
No doubt part of the answer lies in the fact that TV is easily accessible in a way that books aren’t. But there seems to be something
As a first stab at the answer, Edmond Dantes has a personal
motive: revenge for a terrible wrong. And the Just Men had a moral
purpose—though we don’t know that the PTC wouldn’t object to
the Just Men if they were popular today. But Dexter is addicted to
the thrill of slaughtering humans for its own sweet sake. He’s not
just a serial killer, he’s a psychotic serial killer, addicted to ritual
killing—or so we’re told.
What’s the attitude of Wallace (and presumably many of his
readers) to the operations of the Just Men? It’s an attitude which no
thriller writer or TV scriptwriter could get away with today. The
killings of the Just Men are depicted as a rational plan, and are tacitly commended, at least to the extent that the reader is expected
to identify with the Just Men and hope that they keep getting away
with it. Each killing is one more happy ending. The Just Men are
smooth operators, fully in control. Most of their victims (with the
notable exception of the Foreign Secretary in the first story) are evil
characters who thoroughly deserve their fate.
In conversation, the Just Men good-humoredly compare their
own notoriety with that of Jack the Ripper, then as now the most
famous of all serial killers. (The Ripper is more legend than fact.
The press, with the connivance of the police, conspired to pad his
resume by crediting him with murders committed by several different unconnected people.)
Our Killers, Right or Wrong
What about the rightness or wrongness of what the Just Men are
doing? Wallace’s attitude, as storyteller, seems to be: ‘There are big
ethical issues here, and they add to the excitement, but we don’t
want to get sidetracked into debating them.’ The authorial voice
betrays no defensiveness, even though we’re continually reminded
that the Just Men have to outwit official law enforcement as well as
the bad guys. The Just Men never falter in their belief that what
they’re doing is absolutely right. The writer seems to be saying to
his readers: ‘I have a story to tell, and part of the charm of my story
is that you and I can imagine what it’s like for scoundrels to be
brought to justice. There are powerful, influential, or very slippery
people who commit a lot of evil acts but are outside the reach of
the law, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if ruthless, glamorous persons, with efficiency and panache, could give these disgusting villains their come-uppance?’
Could something like The Four Just Men be made today, say as
a TV series, and be successful? Can you imagine a show something
like Criminal Minds, in which the heroic team is a self-appointed
group of private crime-fighters, who illegally execute bad guys? To
make the parallel close, suppose that the pilot episode shows our
heroes assassinating the Secretary of State because she supports a
piece of over-intrusive homeland security legislation—and imagine
that this episode is wildly popular, with no one voicing a qualm
about its propriety.
This is extremely unlikely, for two related reasons. First, any such
series would provoke a storm of controversy about the choice of targets for assassination, as well as the general immorality of endorsing
murder. Second, and more importantly, today’s writers would be
quite incapable of presenting the Just Men as entirely rational. They
would be unable to stop themselves from finding the origin of the
Just Men’s plans in their troubled childhoods. The ideology of childhood trauma is now so very powerful. But if the writers took care to present the team of killers as victims of their demons or their ‘issues’, this would tend to defuse the former kind of objection. We see here how currently dominant ideology automatically pushes any accept-able vigilantism in the direction of Dexter.
What became of Edgar Wallace? He persuaded his employers at
the Daily Mail (a major UK national newspaper) to serialize The
Four Just Men, with a generous prize to readers who could guess
the ending (just how the Foreign Secretary was killed). Although
the book sold millions, boosted the circulation of the Mail, and
made Wallace famous, Wallace was careless with the wording of
the prize offer, so that everyone, without limit, who guessed the
ending was entitled to the prize. Wallace’s book sold millions but
the prize competition drove Wallace himself into bankruptcy.
After that, he wrote many successful stories, including a series
about “the Ringer,” a glamorous revenge killer. He earned a lot of
money, but always spent far more than he earned, gripped by the
superstition that if he failed to spend lavishly, his run of success as
a writer would come to an end. His final project was the script for
King Kong. In 1932 he went to Hollywood to work on that movie,
but quickly fell ill and died.
Wallace’s Just Men are the crystallization of a common theme in
popular fiction: the hero will sometimes break the law in a good
cause. Sherlock Holmes, aside from such trivialities as burglarizing
houses in search of evidence, sometimes lets killers go free. Unlike
the irreproachable Just Men, Holmes also displays another common
trait of the storybook hero: he has his Dark Passenger. His major
motivation is the fascination of solving problems and if he has no
criminological problems to occupy him, he injects himself with
cocaine and plays inchoate dissonant chords on the violin.
The Retribution of Raffles
While Conan Doyle’s Holmes mostly upheld the law, Conan
Doyle’s brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung, created A.J. Raffles, a proper
gentleman and “the greatest slow bowler of his generation.” Raffles
has a public face and mingles with the rich and fashionable, but
also leads a secret criminal life. He is a jewel thief constrained by
an idiosyncratic code of honor.
When Raffles’s confidant, accomplice, and narrator, Bunny
Manders suggests that being a well-known cricketer would be a
hindrance to a life of burglary, Raffles responds:
My dear Bunny, that’s exactly where you make a mistake. To follow
crime with reasonable impunity you simply must have a parallel
ostensible career—the more public the better. . . . it’s my profound
conviction that Jack the Ripper was a really eminent public man,
whose speeches were very likely reported alongside his atrocities.
(“Gentlemen and Players”)
I suppose that in this day and age we do have to mention that
Bunny is a member of the male sex, and to explain that to be most
revered as a cricketer in those days, you had to be a gentleman,
and therefore someone who was not paid to play.
In Mr Justice Raffles, the great jewel thief steals no diamonds,
but utilizes all his skills to bring retribution on an evil man and
restitution to some of his victims. The retribution does not extend
to the arch-villain’s death, but, presumably sensing that anything
less than death would leave the reader’s sense of justice unsated,
the bad guy is slain by someone else. Mr Justice Raffles is now the
least anthologized and least reprinted of the Raffles stories, presumably because of its rather numerous unpleasant comments
about the villain’s ethnicity.
Enter the Bulldog
Eighteen years after the Just Men made their appearance, along
came Bulldog Drummond, in stories penned by the writer who
wrote under the name ‘Sapper’. Drummond was the James Bond of
his day, and later became Ian Fleming’s major inspiration for Bond,
just as Drummond’s arch-villain Carl Peterson was the inspiration
for Ernst Stavro Blofeld (if you’re rusty on your Bond movies, he’s
the guy with the long-haired white cat).
Drummond in 1920 is a former British army officer who finds
life dull after World War I, but then stumbles on a secret conspiracy aiming at the total ruination and humiliation of Britain.
Drummond briefly considers informing the police of Peterson’s foul
plot and criminal deeds, but decides that he, Drummond, would be
just as liable to prosecution as Peterson.
The first four Drummond novels describe Drummond’s epic battle to thwart Peterson’s vile schemes. Drummond has a secret life
like that of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He and his friends, all rich young
men who seem to have nothing more on their minds than getting
sozzled in the posh London clubs, have secret lives as ferocious
fighters against evil.
In The Black Gang, Drummond and his associates, all dressed
in black, terrorize the evil-doers and run rings round the police. A
vast malign conspiracy is afoot. Jews and Communists (the latter
indifferently described as Bolsheviks or anarchists) figure prominently in the conspiracy, but these individuals, though degenerate
and malevolent enough, are simple-minded dupes of the master-mind Carl Peterson, a German who can pass for English or
American, and whose goals, aside from the obvious enormous piles
of money and despotic power, include the destruction of the British
Apart from administering executions, floggings, and other punishments, the Black Gang is responsible for the disappearance of
many leftist agitators and the reader wonders what has become of
them. Perhaps they have been chopped into pieces and . . . well,
there were no plastic bags in those days, and no cordless circular
saws. On the other hand, manual labor was cheap and forensics
was pretty basic. However, near the end of the book, the disappeared ones turn up, in a rehabilitation camp run by the Black
Gang. Here the former subversives are made to work hard under
the fist of a drill-sergeant, thus teaching them (a touch of irony
here, old chap) what socialism is really all about.
In the climactic scene of The Black Gang, Drummond and the
Gang have captured Peterson and his leading cronies. Peterson, a wizard with disguises, is in the persona of a sweet American clergyman.
[Drummond] swung round on the cowering clergyman and gripped
him once again by the throat, shaking him as a terrier shakes a rat.
. . . And still the motionless black figures round the wall gave no sign,
. . . They knew their leader, and though they knew not what had happened to cause his dreadful rage they trusted him utterly and implicitly. Whether it was lawful or not was beside the point: it was just or
Hugh Drummond would not have done it. And so they watched and
waited, while Drummond, his face blazing, forced the clergyman to
his knees, . . .
It was Phyllis who opened her eyes suddenly, and, half-dazed still
with the horror of the last few minutes, gazed round the room. She
saw . . . the Black Gang silent and motionless like avenging judges
round the walls. And then she saw her husband bending Carl
Peterson’s neck farther and farther back, till at any moment it seemed
as if it must crack.
For a second she stared at Hugh’s face, and saw on it a look
which she had never seen before—a look so terrible, that she gave a
sharp, convulsive cry.
“Let him go, Hugh: let him go. Don’t do it.”
Her voice pierced his brain, though for a moment it made no
impression on the muscles of his arms. A slightly bewildered look
came into his eyes: he felt as a dog must feel who is called off his lawful prey by his master.
So Drummond relents, and so (women never think about the
trouble they cause by their sentimental interventions) we have
another two novels in which Drummond battles the archfiend
Peterson before finally seeing him off.
What was it that dear little Phyllis saw in hubby’s eyes, and what
was it doing there? We’re repeatedly reminded that Drummond had
nothing but wholesome fun in the Great War, cruising through No-Man’s-Land in search of Germans whom he could savagely throttle.
Presumably he had that look in his eyes then. And what’s the big
deal, since Carl Peterson is more of a threat and more of a monster
than Kaiser Willy?
The incident may show feminine frailty, or it may show that
even in the struggle against absolute evil, the decent Britisher is
restrained by civilized inhibitions unknown to the filthy Hun.
On the droll side, it seems to show that the immensely muscular Drummond takes a suspiciously long time to break someone’s neck. But what it most clearly shows is that Drummond,
like Dexter, has his Dark Passenger. There’s a monster within,
and somehow, it’s for the good if that monster is sometimes let
Enter the Saint
At school in England, the young boy who would later be Leslie
Charteris thought carefully about his optimal future career, a career
that would suit his personality and make him rich, and eventually
he hit on the answer: he would become a professional burglar. The
record is silent on whether he actually tried out this profession, but
he was a supremely practical person and we can draw our own
And then Charter is discovered that the writing which came easily to him was saleable. He gave up burglary for writing, and systematically developed a hero, Simon Templar, a fearsome vigilante
who kills bad people (“the godless,” as he refers to them, though
this is his only symptom of piety), and who continually has to outwit Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard. Teal, not knowing the whole
story about Templar, considers him a dangerous criminal, and to be
strictly accurate, Teal happens to be technically correct.
Templar’s true purpose is proclaimed early on:
“We Saints are normally souls of peace and goodwill. But we don’t
like crooks, bloodsuckers, traders in vice and damnation. We’re going
to beat you up and do you down, skin you, smash you, and scare you
off the face of Europe. We are not bothered by the letter of the law,
we act exactly as we please, we inflict what punishment we think suitable, and no one is going to escape us.” (Enter the Saint)
As a typical example, in “The Death Penalty,” the Saint runs into
Abdul Osman, a drug dealer and white slaver whom he’s already
met some years before. On that earlier occasion, the Saint had contented himself with branding both of Osman’s cheeks with a nasty
Arabic word. Now the story ends with Osman’s death, though at
whose hands remains a mystery until the very end. The Saint has
no qualms about forging evidence and presenting a fabricated story
to the inquest on Osman, and laying the blame for Osman’s killing
on another drug dealer and white slaver, who ends up being
hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. Thus, the Saint hoodwinks
the official machinery of law enforcement into killing a man
because the Saint believes he deserves it. The Saint’s moniker is
quite consciously ironic.
In popular fiction before World War II, “white slavery” is a
code term for prostitution. Prostitutes and pimps make appearances in these stories, but these words are generally considered
too indelicate. By the 1940s, for instance in The Saint in Miami (1944), the word ‘pimp’, at least, has become permissible. Both
Drummond and the Saint speak in a kind of chummy public-school argot (the Saint’s owing something to Bertie Wooster)
which a later generation might consider somewhat campy. But the
concept of camp lay in the future, and if you could’ve explained
what it meant to the Bulldog or the Saint, you’d earn yourself at
least a sock in the jaw.
The Saint is flamboyant, abrasive, and often inconsiderate of
bystanders. These were the days of the great sports cars with magical names, the Hispano-Suiza and the Lagonda. The greatest of all
these cars was the Hirondel, as driven by Simon Templar, terrorizing other drivers as well as pedestrians in his ruthless, high-velocity pursuit of his own brand of justice.
Some who saw the passage of the Saint that night will remember it to
the end of their lives; for the Hirondel, as though recognizing the hand
of a master at its wheel, became almost a living thing. King of the
Road its makers called it, but that night the Hirondel was more than a
king: it was the incarnation and apotheosis of all cars. For the Saint
drove with the devil at his shoulder, and the Hirondel took its mood
from his. If this had been a superstitious age, those who saw it would
have crossed themselves and sworn that it was no car at all they saw
that night but a snarling silver fiend that roared through London on the
wings of an unearthly wind. (The Saint Closes the Case, also sometimes titled The Last Hero)
Now that’s a car. And that’s what we call writing. Those who
have hoped to acquire a genuine old Hirondel have been disappointed, for this make of car lived entirely in the brains of Leslie Charteris and his millions of readers.
What such passages illustrates is that we always (at least, since
Lord Byron) like our heroes to have an antisocial streak. They have
their Dark Passengers. If they’re too utterly sane, like R. Austin
Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke, they lack an essential ingredient and come
across as bloodless cyphers. Charteris often described the Saint as a
“buccaneer,” but in later stories the Saint is coopted by the authorities. In Angels of Doom(1931), he seems to be working with his old enemy, Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard, then seems to have doublecrossed Teal and become an outlaw vigilante, then turns out to have been working for the Secret Service (thus outranking Teal) all along. But it wouldn’t do for him to become entirely respectable and above
board. Part of the mystique of the Saint is that he’s a criminal, so this
image is continually toyed with in subsequent stories.
The Saint never had much success on the big screen, but a fairly
close imitation, The Falcon, had a good run in the 1940s (Charteris
sued the RKO studio for plagiarism and made contemptuous fun of
the Falcon in The Saint Steps In). Charteris lived in the United
States, but was unable to obtain permanent residency because of
the Chinese Exclusion law (which kept out people with fifty percent or more Chinese ancestry). Charteris had a Chinese father and
an English mother; his real name was Leslie Bowyer-Yin.
Eventually a special Act of Congress was passed, just to enable
Charteris to stay in the US. But after marrying his fourth wife, the
Hollywood starlet Audrey Long, he moved back to England, and
lived there till his death in 1993.
Charteris wrote over a hundred lucrative books, mostly about
the Saint. His last few Saint stories were mainly written by other
people; he just looked them over and made a few changes before
attaching his name. The writers chosen were highly competent, and
the books remained excellent, but the Saint’s popular appeal was
Decline of the Vigilante Novel
At first glance, if we look at what happened after World War II, we
may get the impression that systematic private enforcement of justice went into eclipse. Even as the word ‘vigilante’ became popular, the vigilante novel almost disappeared. Simon Templar was
now working for the government, at least some of the time. Bulldog Drummond’s fan following dwindled and his niche was
filled by James Bond, a civil servant ‘licensed to kill’ by a government department.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and the hero of the Death Wish movies, played by Charles Bronson, were exceptions, but in spirit
they did not go very far beyond revenge. Revenge is a form of justice and has its own rules just as onerous as any other form, but
revenge is personal retribution and does not extend to punishing
offenders with whom the punisher has no personal connection.
Still, some revengers may graduate to vigilantism.
In the late twentieth century, private enforcement of justice is
more usually presented as a fearsome threat. Harry Callahan, hero
of Dirty Harry is sometimes idiotically called a vigilante. Magnum
Force (1973), the second Dirty Harry movie, shows a group of cops
who bump off evil-doers in their spare time. These vigilante cops
are not presented at all sympathetically, and the law-abiding
Callahan is compelled to waste them in order to uphold the law.
In The Star Chamber movie (1983), a group of judges assassinate killers who have managed to escape official justice by legal
technicalities. The true plot begins when they realize they have
made a mistake and their hired executioner is already on his way
to kill the designated target. One of the judges, played by Michael
Douglas, decides to intervene personally to protect the target. At
the end of the movie, Douglas is delivering up the other vigilante
judges to the official police force.
The movie’s point of view is one of bland confidence that the
Star Chamber, the unofficial conclave of judges, is dangerous and
indefensible. It does not explore the irony in the fact that the Star
Chamber has made one rare mistake and that in all its other operations it is rectifying mistakes by the official system. Nor does it
confront what should be done on those occasions when the official system makes the same mistake as the Star Chamber had made:
punishing the innocent. Should a judge with a conscience then
intervene physically to thwart the implementation of official justice?
Despite appearances, vigilantism had not died. It had merely
moved from the bookstores to the newsstands. Comic-book super-heroes took over most of the illegal enforcement of justice. These
new heroes have superhuman powers, not just figuratively, like the
Saint’s amazing agility, quick-wittedness and extraordinary reflexes,
but literally. The most outstanding of the superheroes not to have
superhuman abilities is Batman, who—like the Just Men, Bulldog
Drummond, and the Saint before him—is independently wealthy.
The eviction of vigilantes from popular novels and their relegation to the disreputable underworld of comics does seem to reflect
an increased hostility to vigilantism, connected with the growth of
state-worship in the twentieth century, the age of totalitarianism.
Dexter, Hero of Our Time
In the early twenty-first century, the ideology of childhood trauma
reached its peak in popular culture, even while psychological
research had largely undermined it as scientifically acceptable.
Look at the difference between the first movie made of Willy
Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and the remake, Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory (2005). The first movie, following the
Roald Dahl story, presents Willy Wonka as a somewhat inscrutable,
interestingly dangerous, quirky, but fundamentally benign person,
a formidable godlike figure. The remake depicts Wonka as a dude
with serious issues, a man who worships chocolate because his
father, a dentist, did something terrible to him all those years ago,
as well as forbidding him to eat chocolate. The director of the
remake, Tim Burton, repeatedly voiced his opinion that Wonka just
has to be seen as “screwed up” and that therefore some explanation of his mental disorder is required. The explanation, of course,
has to be childhood trauma—what else?
Another example is the 1997 movie, The Saint, with Val Kilmer,
which borrows a few plot devices from Charteris but is basically
about an entirely different character. The Saint of this movie has not
dedicated his life to punishing bad guys, and instead of being self-assured and confident in his righteous mission, he is driven by a
childhood trauma. The Kilmer Saint is a professional thief who has
become very wealthy and plans to retire after one more job. He is
clever and resourceful, but helplessly possessed by an irrational
compulsion, flowing from his childhood mistreatment by priests.
Childhood trauma plays the same role in modern popular culture as used to be played, in traditional folk tales, by love potions.
Like a love potion, a childhood trauma compels the hero to behave
in an irresponsible way, takes possession of him and leaves him no
choice. These magical effects of childhood trauma are as mythical
as those of the love potion, but they seem to be passionately
believed in by most of today’s writers.
The storyline of Dexter is popular because it’s safe—ideologically safe. A story about someone who bumps off people for carefully calculated reasons, in pursuit of a strict code of justice, would
make too many people too uncomfortable. Today’s ruling ideology
(at least among the intellectual class from whom scriptwriters are
chiefly recruited) holds that motiveless, irrational killing is tasty,
especially if it can be linked with childhood trauma, while calculated killing in a worthy cause, by a hero without hangups, is almost
unthinkable, and if thinkable at all, painfully embarrassing. Every
age is as straitlaced as every other, but the specific taboos change.
Dexter adroitly accommodates itself to the reigning ideology. It
gives us the glamour of the Secret Life and of the anti-social ‘bad
boy’, the narrative appeal of the supernormal hero who fights his
way out of adversity and triumphs, the satisfaction of seeing the
most cunning and elusive evil-doers getting their just desserts.
Instead of inviting criticism or derision by having the hero take a
strong moral line against the villains he executes, any questions
about the rightness of the hero’s cause are defined away: the hero
is not responsible for his actions. To make the hero a puppet of his
bloodlust seems, on the surface, outrageous, provocative, audacious. But really it’s the very safest way to go.
This is not to denigrate the artistic quality of Dexter, which is
superb. Nor is it to criticize Dexter on ideological grounds. We
should be no more troubled by the childhood-trauma ideology of
Dexter than by the anti-Semitism of A.J. Raffles and Bulldog
Drummond, the ultra-politically-correct feminism of Stieg Larsson,
or Jack London’s amalgam of Marxism and Social Darwinism.
Outside the context of the story, these belief systems may be criticized and rejected, while within a work of fiction or drama, they
can be accepted as features of the landscape.
It was inevitable that the indestructible popular hunger for stories of unofficial justice would meet the rampant ideology of my-childhood-makes-me-do-it. It was not inevitable that the artistic
result would be as intelligent, as witty, as well-plotted, and as brilliantly produced and acted as Dexter.
"This article is reprinted from Dexter and Philosophy: Mind over Spatter, edited by Richard Greene, George A. Reisch, and Rachel Robison-Greene (Chicago: Open Court, 2011) and is reproduced here by permission of the author and of Open Court Publishing Company."
© Libertarian Alliance 2014
The roots of the state are
buried in thousands of years
of history and libertarians
recognize the importance of
a sustained assault on the
foundations of statist
ideology, whether it be
conservative, fascist or
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