Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Essays

Murder on the Installment Plan

Becca Rothfeld

Meurtre numéro 14 (detail), 1968/1992, by Jacques Monory (b. 1924); Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo.

In our popular depictions, the serial killer is reiterated, just as he reiterates.

Saint Augustine writes from his cope of dust that we are restless hearts, for earth is not our true home. Human unhappiness is evidence of our immortality. Intuition tells us we are meant for some other city. 

Elizabeth Taylor, quoted in a magazine of twenty years ago, spoke of cerulean Richard Burton days on her yacht, days that were nevertheless undermined by the elemental private reflection: This must end.
—Richard Rodriguez, “Late Victorians”

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?”

The protagonists of Mindhunter, who are loosely modeled on the founders of the FBI’s Criminal Profiling Program, go inward, conducting interviews with convicted serial killers in an effort to understand them. As the title of the series indicates, the team hunts not murderers, but motives. After all, there’s little physical hunting left for a mindhunter to do: The criminals have already been apprehended, the fingerprints taken, the clues decoded. By the time the profilers arrive with their questionnaires, the whodunit is done.

But true answers evade capture, and even the most gifted mindhunters sometimes succumb to incomprehension. The only way to grasp a radically foreign psyche is to inhabit it, as does Hannibal’s Will Graham, an FBI profiler blessed and burdened with acute empathy. Graham occupies the violence of the killers he traces so thoroughly that he fears he’ll become what he hunts. We have no access to what Graham does—the touch and texture of an alien life, the shuddery secret of what it’s like to kill and kill again—but we know something he doesn’t: His psychiatrist and colleague, icily civilized Hannibal Lecter, moonlights as the Chesapeake Ripper, a notoriously theatrical murderer who has terrorized the Washington area for years. Hannibal is an inveterate cannibal, long in the habit of serving his victims’ remains at ornate dinner parties. Somehow, the flat-footed solution—the fact that Hannibal did it—doesn’t diminish the riddle—the full-bodied wonder of why.

This is the pattern often repeated in the rash of recent shows: We learn who the killer is, but we keep watching, waiting for something more. We see the Belfast Strangler stalking and suffocating his victims while the police scratch their heads in The Fall (BBC Two/RTÉ One, 2013–16); we watch as magnetic killer and cult leader Joe Carroll baffles the FBI in the trashy, flashy The Following (Fox, 2013–15); even in the first season of True Detective (HBO, 2014), which refrains from revealing to its audience any more than the police can work out for themselves, we already know all we need to. The perpetrator of the ritualized murders that scandalize rural Louisiana is, inevitably, an anybody, an outwardly unremarkable person. What difference would it make for us to learn his name?

We know who to blame in True Detective precisely because the serial killer is always the same. In our popular depictions, he’s reiterated, just as he reiterates. Whatever his name or profession, he’s a white man, and his victims are usually women. (Hannibal, for what it’s worth, is an atypically equal-opportunity killer). His position of privilege makes his actions all the more opaque. His crimes are ceremonially sexual, enacted like rites. Each death duplicates the next. The serial killer’s career comprises a series without a sequence: He aspires not to succession but to stasis, so he settles for recurrence that mimics endurance. He selects women who look alike, creating the same tableau over and over, as if the experience never ceases and never started, but merely remains. His genre is pornography, which, as Susan Sontag once noted, is typically distinguished by its plotlessness. Porn “goes on and on and ends nowhere.”11xSusan Sontag, “The Pornographic Imagination,” in Styles of Radical Will (New York, NY: Picador, 1969), 39. It does again what it did before. It starts and ends with the body, which is how we began—and the body initiates the next beginning, the next brutalization.

We Watch, We Want

Begin, once again, with the ending, where we ended up last time: the woman posed as if in prayer, her wrists bloating around their bindings. Her death is a performance. In True Detective, the corpses have antlers affixed to their heads, while in Hannibal, the murderer aspires to ever greater spectacle, positioning a dead woman on a bed of antlers and slicing another in half. He wants, Graham hypothesizes, to elevate killing “to art,” and the fare he prepares with the bodies he dismembers is as opulent as any trompe l’oeil: “loin with a Cumberland sauce of red fruits,” “foie gras au torchon with a late harvest vidal sauce and figs,” the meat jeweled with berries, the marrow daubed with clots of impasto cream. In The Following, the literature-professor-turned-killer Joe Carroll choreographs his murders from prison, instructing one of his acolytes to don an Edgar Allan Poe mask, recite “The Raven,” and set a journalist on fire in a public square.

For Carroll, as for Hannibal, a person is mere material, food for preparation or fodder for performance—not an end but an instrument, as in one episode of Hannibal in which a musician strings his cellos with human vocal cords. Yet when organ becomes ornament, the body is sanctified in all its gross physicality. We are good enough to eat, the self a feast, the form a feat. What began as image announces its tactility, its tangibility. Sontag writes that pornography is “a theater of types,”22xIbid., 51. and serial killers face the paradox that confronts all pornographers: Even as they attempt to efface specificity, sculpting sundry women into a single symbol, they cannot help honoring the particularities of the bodies they strive to depersonalize. In their efforts to ritualize and routinize, to transmute live anatomy into flattened icon, they demonstrate instead the ripe richness of body: the lushness of what actually is, what occurs only once and only here, what cannot be recreated. We admire Hannibal’s baroque banquets, which invite us to gorge on the gore and the glut, the skin glazed with sweat and the bowels laced with guts. Pornography is always a negotiation between the repetition it covets and the originality it cannot dispel: between anonymous fetish and the personal, palpable flesh.

So the serial killer, unable to prolong the ecstatic moment indefinitely, unable to sate himself once and for all, craves again and kills again, positioning new victims in the same perverse postures. Jerry Brudos, a real-life killer fictionalized in Mindhunter, dresses his victims in lingerie, arranging them as if they were human dolls and photographing them in his makeshift studio. In The Fall, Paul Spector paints his victims’ nails, splays their corpses across their beds, and takes pictures of their prone bodies. Later, he privately reviews these photographs, revisiting in memory what he cannot revisit in person. Stella Gibson, the profiler in charge of the investigation into Spector’s crimes, realizes that he’s “creating his own pornography.” She tells him over the phone, “You think you’re some kind of artist, but you’re not. You try to dignify what you do, but it’s just misogyny, age-old violence against women.” Like the killers before him, Spector repeats the banal bigotries, reenacting what has happened already: appropriating women’s bodies in the name of his own vicious pleasures, as men are always wont to do.

But we, watching and wanting, are uneasily complicit, horrified and gratified by Spector’s grotesque gratifications. Spector is portrayed by Jamie Dornan, the model-turned-actor who plays deliciously dangerous Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey. Katie, the Spector family’s young babysitter, yearns for his approval with the naked avidity unique to teenage girls. Even when he’s arrested and she’s brought in for questioning, she continues to defend him. Adult viewers are no less seduced. In one episode, shots of Gibson’s rough consensual sex with a coworker are spliced with lingering shots of Spector washing and caressing a corpse. As Gibson and her partner jolt into a furious rhythm, Spector bathes the limp body of his victim with touching tenderness. It becomes difficult to distinguish the collusions of love from the collisions of struggle.

For as surely as the culprit is a man who kills women, as surely as the corpses are arranged in a showy scene, a serial killer has a counterpart as dark and brooding as he is. Will Graham epitomizes what all nemeses intimate: that criminal profiling apes erotic intimacy, demanding the same sacrifice of self. In The Fall, Gibson paints her nails the very shade that Spector painted his victim’s, in preparation for a press conference she knows he’ll watch; in True Detective, the police suspect that solitary detective Rust Cohle was the killer all along, and Rust recalls that during his time undercover he confused himself with his targets; in The Following, ex-agent Ryan Hardy returns to the force solely to contend with Joe Carroll, a mastermind who tells Hardy that the ensuing killing spree is “going to be a collaboration”—that Hardy and Carroll are going to “write this together.” Holden Ford, the pioneer of the criminal psychology initiative in Mindhunter, begins to dominate his coworkers, displaying the narcissistic traits he identifies in the killers he profiles. In the final episode of the first season, the serial killer Edmund Kemper asks Ford if they’re friends and literally embraces him.

Are they friends? Never quite, but always almost. The perverse courtship of killer and captor extends the novel promise of togetherness to two figures who are—and who must be—alone. As the profiler draws closer to the murderer, inserting herself further and further into his perspective, following his movements with the single-mindedness of a demented lover, she endangers the enigma that defines him. What we watch for and wait for—the ultimate ravishment that clarifies the incomprehensible—can never materialize. The logic of the serial killer procedural permits the capture of the killer, even his death, but never his demystification.

So the profiler skims the murderer’s surface, and our gaze only grazes the grisly scenes he stages. Hungry for Hannibal’s cruel cooking, famished for understanding, we become the compulsive consumers of violence that resists consummation. Pornography offers body parts up to onlookers, bruising and braising the meat of its victims. But we watch—we want—because we cannot touch or taste. No sooner has one episode ended than we start the next. As soon as the end begins, we already long to return to the beginning.

Poe and the Puzzle Novel

Begin, this time, with more definite endings: with mysteries that admitted of complete solutions. Chronologically, the beginning was Edgar Allan Poe, the object of Joe Carroll’s obsession in The Following. Poe did not write pornography, which ends nowhere and never, but rather what he called “tales of ratiocination,” which end with a crisp QED. His short stories “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842–43), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844) are widely regarded as the first works of detective fiction. They introduce ur-sleuth C. Auguste Dupin, who solved his cases with analytic aplomb, anticipating the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. If the Son of Sam murders were executions without reason, exercises in sheer illogic for illogic’s sake, then the dramas Poe dreamt up were ideally rational, fantasies of a world reduced to thought experiment. “The detective story, as created by Poe,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “is something as specialized and as intellectual as a chess problem.”33xT.S. Eliot, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” in Selected Essays (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1950), 377. “Wilkie Collins and Dickens” first published 1927.

The genre initiated by Poe’s three stories evolved into the popular “puzzle novel” of the 1930s and ’40s, a closed system that tied up all loose ends. Every puzzle novel is a reliable repository of tropes. It’s set in a contained space with a fixed cast of occupants, perhaps an English manor staffed by conniving servants, perhaps a train trundling through Europe and admitting few new passengers. Its tone is cheerful, its prose competent. Its drink of choice is sherry. Its characters are at worst cardboard cutouts, forced to fit the formal demands of the all-important story, at best “painstakingly coherent,” as Eliot wrote (a little uncharitably) of Wilkie Collins’s creations.44xIbid., 375. Its hero, the amateur detective, is an outsider, able to observe the milieu of the crime with dispassion. Its plot is as predictable as a schoolbook exercise, an algebra problem that plugs new variables into the same equation. W.H. Auden recorded the puzzle novel’s recipe in “The Guilty Vicarage,” his abashed apologia for detective fiction: “A murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies.”55xW.H. Auden, “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the Detective Story, by an Addict,” Harper’s, May 1948,

The purpose of this trusty, tired formula is to give the reader a fair shot at solving the case. S.S. Van Dine, a prominent if somewhat vaudevillian mystery writer of the 1920s and ’30s, spelled out the relevant requirements and restrictions in his 1928 treatise “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.”66xS.S. Van Dine, “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” The American Magazine, September 1928, retrieved from Thrilling Detective website, “The detective story is a game,” he begins. His first and foremost rule—from which the other nineteen follow as neatly as three follows two—is that “the reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery.” It is for this reason that “the culprit must be determined by logical deductions—not by accident or coincidence”; it is for this reason that “the problem of the crime must be solved by simply naturalistic means” without recourse to ghosts or Ouija. A detective story can demand only a priori machinations: It is an armchair endeavor that does not dirty its hands by venturing into the cluttered world.

Unlike the unconsummated romance between profiler and serial killer, the identification between reader and detective is often total. The reader, like the detective, is an outside observer dropped abruptly into the world of the crime. And like the detective, the reader is also interested in the case only insofar as its resolution satisfies a scientific or sporting curiosity. “One of my basic theories of detective fiction,” writes Van Dine in his fifteenth rule, “is that, if a detective story is fairly and legitimately constructed, it is impossible to keep the solution from all readers.” Becoming the detective is precisely how the reader wins the game.

Even fans and addicts of the puzzle novel concede that it is not literature, not an interrogation or even a representation of life and its attendant confusions, but rather a mathematical diversion in the vein of sudoku. In her introduction to The Omnibus of Crime, the legendary mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers admits frankly that the detective story “does not (and by hypothesis never can) attain the loftiest level of literary achievement.”77xDorothy L. Sayers, ed., The Omnibus of Crime (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1929); also quoted in Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in The Simple Art of Murder (New York, NY: Black Lizard, 1988), 11. According to Van Dine, this is by design: His sixteenth rule states that a detective novel should contain “no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked out character analyses, no ‘atmospheric’ preoccupations,” all of which would only distract from the business of setting out the puzzle. In its efforts to insulate itself from the mess and stress of empirical reality, the detective story inevitably proves stiff and artificial.

The clean finality of its ending comes at the steep price of its artistic irrelevance. As Edmund Wilson wrote in his classic hatchet job, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?,” “You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out.”88xEdmund Wilson, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?,” The New Yorker, October 14, 1944, The puzzle novel exists only as long as its puzzle persists. Its ending is absolute. It leaves us nothing to ponder, nothing to pocket, nothing that merits repetition or return. It’s a place we visit only once, like tourists on the way to more enduring attractions. Even Auden, a self-professed “addict” of the mystery genre, confessed, “I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again.” The end is a terminus, not a beginning. The puzzle pieces itself together and exhausts itself.

Yet Poe, its progenitor, did not abide by its laws. His final book, provisionally and posthumously titled The Light-house by his scholars and survivors, was unfinished at the time of his death. It comprises a series of raving, paranoiac journal entries written by a man alone in a lighthouse. Its last entry, dated January 4th, is blank. In The Following, Joe Carroll devises a sequel to—an end for—The Light-house. But when his book is poorly reviewed, he concludes that serial murder is a more fitting conclusion for Poe’s fragmented finale. Like Poe’s, Carroll’s ending is a nonending, an indeterminate blank, a call for further inquiry and interpretation. His killings yield more killings. His end is a beginning.

Literature on the Installment Plan

Begin, then, with Poe’s ending: the ending that promised finality, the ending that the antiending of The Light-houserejected. Even in the halcyon days when crimes were committed for reasons, the end was a source of discontent. The invention of the detective story coincided with the advent of mass manufacture. As factories churned out identical wares with unprecedented efficiency, limitations on production began to vanish. The final barrier to soaring profits was the stingy consumer, who could not be coaxed to continue wanting what she already owned. The ideal product was therefore something that a person would go on wanting even when she had it, something that would induce desire so pronounced that even possession could do nothing to dispel it.

The mystery novel, with its fixed template, lent itself to ready reproduction. But it did not satisfy readers’ appetites because it concluded altogether too completely. The initial remedy was conceived by Dickens in the late 1830s, with the staggered publication, over the course of eight months, of The Pickwick Papers. Dickens was the first to divide corpse into corpus, in much the same way that Jack the Ripper, the first celebrity serial killer, cut prostitutes into pieces just forty years later. That is, Dickens serialized, protecting readers from their impulse to rush downhill and look at the last page first.

Like most major evolutions in literary format, serialization was more of an economic imperative than an artistic innovation. The burgeoning working class—the laborers flocking to cities, where some would fall prey to serial killers like Jack the Ripper and American hotelier H.H. Holmes—could only afford literature on the installment plan. But novels were not like the other commodities the proletariat endlessly replicated in the factories they left their villages to staff. Unlike each bar of soap or candy, each portion of the same novel was different from the portion before.

In his essay “Interpreting Serials,” the critic Umberto Eco asks what each segment of a series has in common with the rest. “To serialize,” he writes, “means, in some way, to repeat.”99xUmberto Eco, “Interpreting Serials,” in The Limits of Interpretation (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), 85. But in what way? Episodes of a TV show or chapters of a book are not copies of each other the way textiles or turbines are copies of their prototypes. Eco concludes that what each element in a series shares is a “narrative scheme.” “One believes one is enjoying the novelty of the story,” he writes, “while in fact one is enjoying it because of the recurrence of a narrative scheme that remains constant.”1010xIbid., 86. By Eco’s lights, the puzzle novel grips us not because it’s suspenseful but because it’s familiar. “Paradoxically,” he writes in an essay on the pulp-mystery writer Rex Stout,

the same detective story that one is tempted to ascribe to the products that satisfy the taste for the unforeseen or the sensational is, in fact, read for exactly the opposite reason, as an invitation to that which is taken for granted, familiar, expected.1111xUmberto Eco, “The Myth of the Superman,” in The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1979), 120.

Eco maintains that we like series because they “console” us, rewarding “our ability to foresee,” reassuring us that we live in an orderly world.

Eco is right in observing that we become inured to the recycled dramatics of soap operas and drugstore romances. He’s right, too, in asserting that we often watch series solely because they cater to our laziness. He’s also right—serially right—in saying that there’s something we know about every narrative the moment it lurches into motion. But he’s wrong to assume that we relish the domestic comforts of our certainty. For if we enjoyed the predictability that attends repetition, why would we let anything end? Why wouldn’t we serialize indefinitely? Why aren’t we still repeating the very first story, whatever that story was—a story that should, by hypothesis, enthrall in perpetuity, no matter how many times we’ve heard it told before?

All we know for certain is that certainty recurs: that every story shades into sureness and lethargy. Dickens multiplied the endings and thereby the beginnings. But the end can’t begin forever. An ending repeated over and over wears out and becomes expected. It loses its power to inaugurate. When a story has ended once too often, it ends forever, like television shows that sprawl and cease to entertain. So once more we’re in need of an antidote to the old ailment of ending. We’re back where we started, back where we’ve been so often: back at the beginning.

The Exile of the Ending

Try this: Don’t stop beginning. Begin and begin and begin. Begin endlessly—that is, without the taint of even eventual ending. Don’t make the mistake of muddling into middle. Remain pristine and preliminary until the end is inconceivable: until beginning becomes being and being becomes enduring. Eternity isn’t just a demand of the market but also a demand of the heart.

In The Confessions, Saint Augustine imagines grace as a matter of permanence, possession lacking even a hint of loss. “Blessed is he who loves You,” he writes, for “he alone loses no one dear to him to whom all are dear in the One who cannot be lost. And who is this but our God?” God is all we truly own because he is the only object we cannot misplace: “No one loses you unless he tries to get rid of you, and if he does try to do that, where can he go, whither does he flee, but from you in your tranquility to you in your anger? Does he not encounter your law everywhere, in his own punishment?”1212xSaint Augustine, The Confessions (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997), 63. God is inescapable, eternal, and ubiquitous. He is everywhere and always. By contrast, earthly goods always threaten to leave us or bereave us.

All the stories we tell on earth are dogged by the specter of loss, of ending. Chopping them up draws them out, but it cannot preserve them. Knowing that the certainty we crave would also delimit the drama we desire, we try our best to defer it. But deferral depreciates into redundancy and repetition. What we need is a puzzle that is insoluble: a story that serializes itself.

If the new mode of crime inaugurated by the Son of Sam demanded new modes of detection—demanded even the establishment of new branches of the FBI—it also demanded a new kind of artistic treatment. In “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950), the inimitable Raymond Chandler complained that the detective story typical in his day, the puzzle novel, had “a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions.”1313xRaymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder: An Essay” in The Simple Art of Murder (New York, NY: Black Lizard, 1988), preface. First published 1950. In Chandler’s view, puzzle novels fail to qualify as literature not because they’re escapist—all art, Chandler argues, grants reprieve from dreary reality—but because they conclude so tidily. Art, by contrast, is a mosquito bite, a continual provocation to return to the beginning that never ended, if only to renew our perplexity.

With the advent of the hardboiled detective fiction Chandler wrote and championed, the mystery became harder to penetrate. In the film noir it inspired, chiaroscuro lighting literally obscured, suffusing the streets and cities with darkness. The private eye, an antihero with a strict code of honor, overshadowed the supposed mystery. Philip Marlowe, the quintessential Chandler protagonist, is more maddening than any of the convoluted, throwaway murders he solves. Chandler’s novels are among my favorites, but I recall almost nothing about their plots. What I do recall about once every week is that Marlowe plays chess with himself and thinks vomit smells like “bitter almonds”—that he looks at a garage one night and notices that the “doors were shut, but there was an edge of light under them and a thread of light where the halves met.”1414xRaymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (New York, NY: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1992), 176, 183. First published 1939. Who is Marlowe, who antagonizes the police and mouths off to gunmen and yet narrates with such quiet and incongruous perfection? We cannot dismiss the secret of his style. Marlowe’s muted eloquence never spoils, never sours. It certainly does not lend itself to arithmetic resolution.

Most hardboiled fiction is narrated by the private eye, a curiously vacant noninhabitant of his own adventures—but it occasionally adopts the impossible perspective of the killer himself. In The Killer Inside Me (1952), Jim Thompson’s ferociously gory classic, the sociopathic protagonist masquerades as a police officer: In Lou Ford, the profiler and the criminal draw together to occupy one body. And in Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), perhaps the first modern serial killer novel, the narrator, Dix, is a prolific strangler whose best friend is a homicide detective, Brub. Dix sits in silence while his friends at the police station lament, “There’s never any reason for her to be killed. There’s been no reason for any of them.”1515xDorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place (New York, NY: New York Review Books, 2017), 31. First published 1947.

Dwelling in Dix’s experience does not help us discover his reasons. Dix asks Brub about the killer’s—that is, his own—motives: “Does an insane man need a motive? Does he have one?” He doesn’t know himself. All he can say is that “the red knots” keep tightening in his mind—and all the police can tell him about himself is that they’re sure he’ll kill over and over. The book ends not with an answer but with an anguished query. Brub asks, “For God’s sake, why did you do it?”1616xIbid., 152. Solving the crime, it seems, can’t solve anything satisfying. The moment the police catch the killer is the moment they begin to formulate the questions.

In a way, we’re repeating different versions of the same story we’ve always told—if not the very first, then at least one of the earliest on record. Film noir and the serial killer series it inspired may represent crime fiction’s final form—one that admits of infinite elongation, that effectively exiles the ending—but they also represent a return to the most elemental beginning. In Oedipus the King, a play written nearly 2,500 years ago, Oedipus, the oblivious ruler of Thebes, commands the blind oracle Tiresias to identify the killer of the former king. Tiresias tells Oedipus, “You yourself are the criminal you seek.” Like today’s profilers, Oedipus is both detective and criminal—and like today’s profilers, he finds that his fraught cohabitation only intensifies his estrangement. When the truth finally dawns on him, he gouges out his eyes. Superficial knowledge yields enduring blindness. Living inside ourselves won’t make it any easier to determine why we are what we are. So we carry the perplexity with us, all the way into eternity. I don’t know whether that ultimate end, I mean that ultimate endlessness, will yield complete confusion or complete comprehension. I don’t know which would be better, which would allow for fuller consummation, for consummation that had no conclusion. While we wait, we wonder. Meanwhile, the crimes continue, bringing us back to the blue-lipped body above the blot of blood, back to the blessed beginning.