My Pet Serial Killer
Michael J. Seidlinger
Enigmatic Ink, 2013
Reviewed by Robert Pfeiffer
Michael Seidlinger’s My Pet Serial Killer is unlike anything I have ever read. And I do not mean that in the “no-one-has-ever-read-anything-like-this” way, though perhaps that is true. I am inexperienced in whatever stew of genres this novel inhabits, or is inhabited by, and I expect the same could be assumed for most readers. The closest thing I’ve consumed to this mélange of sex, murder, gore, and humor is watching the film version of American Psycho. The strengths of that film lie in how, after a brief moment of shock, the audience feels numb to what they see on the screen, growing less appalled by the violence and more concerned with the satirical elements. Though it is not a clear descendant, My Pet Serial Killer does seem to exist in the same realm, anesthetizing the reader to what they are witnessing, and illuminating some disturbing elements of American culture that we are drawn to, yet simultaneously repulsed by.
My Pet Serial Killer is a complicated novel, but with a narrative that moves at such a quick pace, it’s hard to set down. Claire Wilkinson is a graduate student pursuing a degree in forensics, and as research for her thesis, she develops a plan to study a serial killer that has been targeting women in the area, named “The Gentleman Killer” by local media outlets. Claire doesn’t pester law enforcement or investigate the crimes to discover the killer’s identity. Rather, she uncovers who he is and forms a partnership with the man, named Victor. With her forensic expertise and his seemingly endless appetite for torture, murder, and dismemberment, they make the perfect pair. She keeps him safe, and in turn, she gets insight into what makes him tick. She transforms her apartment by soundproofing the walls, rigging it with cameras, and building a cage in which the killer can do whatever he wants with the women she chooses for him. For Claire, simply killing dozens of women is not good enough. The victims must be the right kind–they must have “fight” in them. She watches his every move, probing him about what the victims taste and feel like, criticizing what he does wrong, like an overbearing coach. As long as he does as she says, there is no way he will ever be caught, she tells him. Their relationship thrives as the body count climbs, and she studies him as they march toward serial killer immortality.
One of the wonderful things about this novel is that, while it does partake richly of the gore and sex, it does not relish in it like torture-porn. This is because we get the story through Claire in the present tense. Her voice is so distant and matter-of-fact (she is conducting research, after all), that we see the events through her own desensitized eyes. When Victor is committing these horrific acts, Claire relays them to us in a tone so emotionless that we don’t spend much time thinking of Victor at all. This makes us acutely aware of our own lack of sensitivity, or emotional investment, in witnessing such immense suffering. Her mind is often elsewhere–removed from the scene. For example, in a conversation with fellow forensics students, Claire observes:
And now they’re talking about media icons and murder.
I’m saying something, elaborating upon a point previously brought up by one of the others. It has everything to do with the mystery and the image a mystery projects.
Many of them are agreeing …
In her own real time, Claire converses and holds court with those around her while her mind is elsewhere. There is hardly even a rise in blood pressure or heart rate when she speaks. Claire is ice.
Claire exists simultaneously in two different worlds, one violent and depraved in the extreme, the other ordinary and banal. The truth, though we try to ignore it, is that these worlds are one and the same, and we are all occupants. Claire, like so many others, walks among us without our knowledge. We hear stories about serial killers. We hear that Ted Bundy was charming and normal; that Jeffery Dahmer, pulled over by the police with a victim chopped up in a trash bag in the back of his car, was so calm the police let him go without even a ticket. We become unhinged listening to Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, confessing with the emotional pitch of a man who’s taken a few too many Xanax. We hear these things and we are baffled, certain that if our neighbors were psychopaths, we would know…we would sense something off, or spot some tell. Claire’s narrative makes us question this. She makes us worry that, as she overhears a man at the bar pontificate, “we all know killers and those killers are commonplace.”
But here is where My Pet Serial Killer lingers at its best. Seidlinger forces us to wonder why we know these stories about Bundy, Dahmer, and Rader, and why anyone would ever find themselves using a word like “prolific” to describe a murderer. We live in a disturbing social crucible, taking perverse interest in the details of the worst among us. The media covers tragedies aggressively, racing towards body counts, reporting on the Jodi Arias case like it’s the trial of the century. We are obsessed with violence, and particularly murder. Moreover, the murders that are the most personal, most gruesome, most overtly or metaphorically sexual, are the ones that get the most press, dating back at least to Jack the Ripper. As a nation, we hardly remember the DC sniper, who terrorized the capitol in the early aughts. Dahmer, however, will live on in his preposterous celebrity forever. This is the type of killer Claire wants her pet to be, and it is only possible in a society that craves such horror. My Pet Serial Killer forces the reader to examine such a society and his or her own role within it. Seidlinger offers a pointed critique of American society’s love of violence. As the author acerbically notes, “Society is a filthy bitch, anyway.”