Oliver Stark on his debut novel American Devil (Headline)
The novel comes out of a love of the American crime writing tradition and the mythical landscapes and cityscapes of America. America and New York are places that really fire the imagination because they are places born out of imagination.
America presents the writer with an enormous and dramatic backdrop. It is also the home of the serial killer. Although found in every country, the serial killer is a particularly American killer. There are more serial killers in America than any other country on earth. The question that should interest us is why?
Why does this country create such killers?
Perhaps it is because America is not only the land of opportunity and dreams, but the place of disappointment and dark fantasy – a place where the disenchanted are reminded everyday of their failure. It is a place of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, of easy access to weapons, all within a vast shifting and changing population.
The devil as an idea had always been there in all societies – the idea of something evil living in your own community, possibly unbeknown even to his or her own family. In America, there is a kind of devil that haunts the cities and remote towns. And he’s not a chimera, he’s a real thing. A very real thing.
He tends to look like some regular, everyday guy, most often quite a pathetic figure – but this guy preys on weak or defenseless people and tortures and kills them for no ulterior motive. Only for some internal meaning or purpose – excitement, pleasure, anger. It seems to me to be the very definition of evil:a random, purposeless and determined destruction.
In a sense – in America anything can happen and probably will, and that makes it an exciting world for a story. It is a place of possibility. New York is also the archetypal modern city – bustling with people from all parts of the world, brought together to try to make a difference to their lives. Therefore it’s full of characters, all with their own stories and desires.
I was inspired to write the book a little by chance. A copy of James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider was left in a hotel room and I picked it up. Although I’d read much of the old-style crime fiction, I hadn’t read the modern incarnation. The pace and tension of the story was astonishing and the thrill gripped me immediately and I wanted to make something work like that. I wanted to try to make something exciting for the reader.
Once I had that idea in my head, the story came out of a chance event. One of the characters in the book was a guy I saw crossing a street in New York. Sometimes, you look at people and make up stories – you look at their shoes, their mood, their clothes, their expression –and try to work them out and give them a story. I do it whenever I’m traveling on a train or tube.
Well, I saw this man – a harmless looking but strangely determined overweight guy struggling along wheeling a suitcase along side him. He wore a red turtleneck and his trousers were an inch too short. The story that came to mind for this guy was the story of a killer, trundling along with a body in a suitcase. The story grew from the sight of that man and the possibilities he suggested.
What if you’re walking the streets beside someone who has just killed? It’s possible in a city. The life of the killer outside of his or her crime interests me hugely – their psychological make-up, how they cope with the guilt and the destruction.
Every killer out there also lives out a normal existence, making choices about what to wear and what to eat, then – at some point, those choices are made about who to kill and how. The idea of murder is essentially banal. That idea is interesting.
The main character in American Devil is the detective, Tom Harper. He’s a traditional guy looking for something bigger in life – love, nature, beauty, meaning. His day job is chaos, he looks at the fragments and destruction of lost lives and tries to hunt for the killers.He is also driven and powerful, so can’t always control his temper which gets him into trouble.
The idea for American Devil was of a cop who was on the edge of his own world – with the fantasy of a happy life crashing about his ears, his own anger breaking in – and his desire to run away from it all. And instead of dealing with all of this, he has to put it to one side and help catch a ruthless killer.
I wanted to explore the idea that violence is a way to cope for many people – cops and criminals. It’s a way to react to the world that disappoints us or which we disappoint. It’s a visceral reaction that feels like honesty when we are endlessly frustrated.
And what differentiates Harper is he can still see beauty in nature and see that it is meaningful – and he still has a morality, that differentiates good from bad. His anger, emotional distress can be tamed.
And the tamer is a young psychologist. A brilliant woman called Denise Levene with her own difficult story, but who is better at presenting a front to the world. She is the opposite of Harper, a woman who is not emotional or violent. But where she’s most different is that she doesn’t react to his anger with fear. And that allows her to help Harper.
In many ways, they come to need each other because alone they lack the whole picture – both in terms of the case which needs the savvy of the detective and the insight of the psychologist, but also emotionally, where each character needs a foil strong enough to allow them to be themselves. As two characters, they are essential to completing the puzzle which none of us can solve on our own.
The killer in American Devil is a symbol of all our drives and desires gone wrong. Our desires for love, art, beauty and success in a perverted and destructive form.
The appeal of thrillers and serial killers?
A serial killer is different from any other killer because he or she lacks motive in any understandable way. They do not kill for gain, revenge, passion, jealousy, money or vengeance. They kill out of something deeper and more disturbing. In a sense, we cannot relate to them, because they remain too different from us, and it is that difference that continues to fascinate.
But the main reason for looking at the serial killer is that their disease is sustained – the acts of violence (the crime) co-exists with the ability to hide that crime and repeat it, either through ingenuity and cleverness in evading the police, or through police error or because there is simply no motive and there is therefore no line of questioning that would link the killer to the victim.
If no real motive exists then the only way to link victim and perpetrator is through forensic science, psychological profiling or by developing a personal link to the killer.
In the serial killer thriller, the drive of the story is how to piece together a killer who strikes at random – it is the pull of two narratives, the killer’s drive to kill that inches incrementally closer to the detectives drive to capture him. Because the crimes continue – this allows the writer to play with those two narrative lines .
There is no doubt that the interest in real-life serial killers is enormous. There is a macabre and unsettling desire to look at the abnormal and the extremes. And the production of books, films, artworks all around the serial killer show the extend of our appetite to confront and understand these strange disturbing psyches.
And the idea for me was also a question – in a civilization in which killers are famous and our highest honour is fame – what is there to prevent the abused from thinking that it is a good thing to achieve fame through notoriety.
I think the appeal of the serial killer thriller is that it is less scary than the fears we carry around with us. It gives substance to fears, it gives them a visible focus and that helps people to process their fears.
The following poem by Emily Dickinson explains this far better that I could:
One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Far safer, of a midnight meeting
Than an interior confronting
That whiter host.
The idea is that it is preferable to be scared by external things – like the killers in books – than haunted by our own unseen, unverbalised horrors and fears.
While American crime fiction created a New York that was very different to Britain – It was lived outside, on the streets, in danger, for the moment – the very opposite of suburban existence and the very opposite of everything we all aspire to ourselves in our everyday lives.
But somehow, hunkering down for a lifetime of suburban hibernation isn’t enough for us. So in our fiction, films, TV we seek adventure, danger, moral difficulty and horror.
We shut our suburban doors and double lock them. What is outside has just been made real and we can – for a moment – forget our internal anxieties and fears as we listen for footsteps outside the door.
Preferable? Yes, it seems to be for fans of the thriller, because it’s an escape from anxieties that are real and our own.
American devil is published by Headline; Oliver Stark’s new hardback is called 88 Killer and is out 14 April.