Nondescript Rambunctious

By Jackie Bateman

The media have long had a love affair with serial killers, feeding off the public’s fascination with their crimes. But the reality of monsters like Gary Ridgway (the Green River Killer), John Wayne Gacy, or Robert Pickton is less entertaining than sickening and depressing. These are people you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a streetcar for a few minutes, much less read a book or watch a TV special about.

In fiction and film, however, serial killers like Freddy, Michael, and Jason, can be made into franchises. And Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, memorably portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, went one step further. Here was a killer that was suave, intelligent, and almost sexy. He plays the Goldberg Variations without sheet music (“not perfectly, but exceedingly well”), and can give extempore lectures to learned societies on Italian poetry. We wouldn’t mind spending some time with him, maybe even inviting him over for dinner with a nice chianti. The same could be said about television’s Dexter Morgan, the current serial-killer-as-pop-culture hero. No “almost” about it, charming Dexter is definitely one of the good guys.

Which is a long way of saying that the character of the serial killer now comes with a lot of baggage. And so when author Jackie Bateman (born in England, raised in Kenya, currently residing in Vancouver) came to write Nondescript Rambunctious (winner of the Simon Fraser Writer’s Studio First Book Award) she was entering a field already stocked with conventions.

The title comes from a website run by Oliver, a serial killer who improbably streams his grim handiwork over the Internet to paying customers. Oliver, who has relocated to a remote town in Scotland to enjoy some privacy (his new house has a secret basement and a backyard with potential for composting), is the sort of slightly snobby eccentric we’ve come to expect from fictional serial killers. Along with a fetish for slow death, he has a thing about germs – the slightest contact with another human being leaves him running for a scalding hot shower and rubbing his skin with a pumice stone until it’s raw and bleeding.

Oliver is not, however, a very charming or believable creation, and luckily doesn’t have to carry the book. Instead Bateman focuses on the fall-out from his crimes and their “repercussions” on his victims: Lauren, the single mother he abducts and cruelly tortures, and Lauren’s daughter Lizzy, a tough thirteen-year-old kid quickly going nowhere in a nowhere town full of losers. Oliver’s basement is a scary enough place, but, as he points out in his own defense, the world is full of violence and terror. Lizzy is only marginally better off on the outside, dealing with a dead-end existence full of druggies and domestic abuse.

It is the character of Lizzy and her world, represented in Bateman’s almost sociological attention to details of slang, dress, lower-class lifestyles and despair, that makes the book memorable. The naturalistic argument – that there is no escape from one’s past and one’s environment – is absolutely unsparing. Even the seeming-hopeful ending has to be seen as an empty gesture when placed in the context of everything that’s gone before.

The result is an honest if depressing thriller, always looking for a way out but never finding any light.

Review first published online May 7, 2012.

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