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Author blooms in Dexter's wake

The creator of the Showtime serial killer with a double life finds his own turned upside down.

By Eric Deggans, Times TV/media critic
Published September 17, 2007


All about Dexter
Jeff Lindsay appears at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa. He also will talk about and sign his books at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 27 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. For information, go to www.festivalofreading.com.

On TV
Dexter debuts at 9 p.m. Sept. 30 on Showtime. Grade: A. Rating: TV-MA (Mature Audiences).

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CAPE CORAL - Jeff Lindsay leans back in his chair, just a few feet from his screened-in pool and lived-in fishing boat, and lets slip a secret.

All this success - the critically acclaimed books, the award-winning Showtime series, the comfortable, suburban Florida home - it's cramping his style.

He'd grown used to life as a writer who almost made it. He had tales of his big pitch meeting with Steven Spielberg in Hollywood. "We came so close, and then he said, 'I've already written a story about an alien. I'm not interested,' " Lindsay said.

He had a resume that included everything from two dozen plays to award-winning industrial training films. And he had already retreated to Florida after a decade in Hollywood's dream factory, cobbling together an honest living teaching college writing classes, hosting a public broadcasting TV show and writing a newspaper column.

Then along came Dexter Morgan to screw it all up.

Dexter was Lindsay's eureka moment - an instant crystallization of something we've all felt.

What if there was a smart, charismatic serial killer out there, and we were all rooting for him, because he was killing people we wanted to see dead?

The result - a serial killer who only murders other killers, avoiding detection as a forensics expert working for the Miami police department - has spawned three books, an attention-getting Showtime drama series and new status for the author as an overnight publishing success.

And Lindsay's still not comfortable with it all.

"I was really good at being the failed writer," he says, sitting at the dinner table in his cozy Cape Coral home. "I knew exactly who and where I was. (Now) I'm readjusting to, you know, who I am now. You know, people treat you differently."

There's lots more attention coming. Lindsay's publishers timed release of his third Dexter book, Dexter in the Dark, to coincide with the second season debut of Showtime's series. Late last month, DVDs of the first season hit the market.

Lindsay decided to take a bold step with the third Dexter book, presenting a story in which the "dark passenger" that feeds the character's murderous impulses - always assumed to be an internal reflection of his mental imbalance, like a second personality - is shown to be something more. Something independent.

It's something quite unlike anything readers have seen before in Dexter's world.

"I feel like a nut when I say this, but the more I research psychopaths and serial killing and all of that . . . I'm more than half convinced at this point that demon possession is a real thing," he said. "Every culture in the world that I've looked at - and I've checked a few - has some phenomenon that is the same thing. I didn't want to go too far overboard and make it a ghost story or anything, but the idea was intriguing to me."

Given his natural storytelling skills, it's only natural that Lindsay has developed a shtick in discussing the development of Dexter. His favorite line: that the idea came to him after speaking at a Kiwanis Club luncheon and thinking "serial murder isn't such a bad thing."

It always gets a laugh, but isn't quite the whole story. True enough, Lindsay did spark on the idea of a serial killer book at that lunch, writing out the basic idea on a napkin.

But it took another three years to write Darkly Dreaming Dexter, which detailed a young boy warped after seeing his parents killed by drug dealers, stuck sitting in a pool of their blood for days before police discovered him and his brother.

Adopted by a policeman who recognized right away how that childhood trauma sparked an impulse to kill, Dexter learned from his new father how to avoid detection - and how to visit that murderous compulsion on criminals who deserved it.

Besides the inspired setup, Dexter's appeal comes from the character's inner dialogue - a droll, slightly cynical commentary from a character who insists he is a monster without emotion, though readers (and viewers) may believe differently.

"The first thing everybody says when their next-door-neighbor is arrested for killing 60 people is, 'we never . . . he's the nicest guy,' " said Lindsay. "That's the persona he puts on. (And) I make a lot of subtle parallels - I think they're subtle, anyway - between that (killing compulsion) and, you know, sexual need. And there's not a guy in the world who hasn't done something awful when (the need) gets to the point where you have to do something about it."

Turns out, Dexter wasn't inspired so much by the Kiwanis Club as by life in '80s and '90s-era Miami, where Lindsay moved with wife Hilary Hemingway after their Los Angeles stint. A native of Magic City, the author could remember days when parents might send their kids out to nearby islands for a sleepover or out on a boat for a day of unsupervised fun.

But the Miami he experienced then - soon after Fidel Castro's Mariel Boatlift sent hundreds of criminals to American shores - was quite different.

"I resented the fact that they'd taken my city away from me," Lindsay said, careful to point out that he wasn't referring to all Cuban immigrants, just the criminals who made life difficult back then. "When I grew up there, it was a beautiful, sleepy little city. . . . The frustration got to a point where I think Dexter was born - just like he says in the book, 'out of childhood trauma.' "

And so, Lindsay birthed his "Dark Avenger," who grouses about Miami traffic and buys doughnuts for his colleagues on days when he's not chopping up killers and dumping their body parts into the ocean.

"I like the idea that there's a jaguar prowling the playground," he said. "And all the nuts roll downhill to Florida."

Who knew that when it came time to translate this complex, charismatic character to television, they would actually get it right?

The right star

Even the TV adaptation of Dexter has beaten the odds.

Because, although the TV version departs significantly from Lindsay's novels, they still found the beating heart of the series - mostly by hiring star Michael C. Hall.

Known for playing repressed, gay embalmer David Fisher on HBO's groundbreaking family drama Six Feet Under, Hall manages the unique feat of playing a put-upon everyguy who just happens to kill murderers as a hobby.

For his effort, Hall has earned a Television Critics Award for best actor - presented to him by this writer in Los Angeles in July - and status as an actor playing the unplayable: an emotionless sociopath pretending to have a soul.

"When we meet (Dexter), he has constructed a lot of things for himself," said Hall in July. "It's only when those things he's pragmatically constructed for himself start to crumble that he has no choice but to respond (emotionally). . . And a lot of his journey over the second season will be his growing awareness of that with the fact that his compulsion remains."

Indeed, as the second season begins, it is just weeks after Dexter has killed his brother, a ruthless serial murderer known as the Ice Truck Killer. Troubled by the fact that his adoptive father had hidden his brother's existence from him, Dexter is off balance, growing more insecure when police discover his stash of body parts, bringing in a hotshot federal investigator to find the killer.

In Lindsay's books, Dexter's sister Deb guesses his secret, as does her superior Lt. LaGuerta, whom he kills. The second book, Dearly Devoted Dexter, features a killer who slowly amputates his victims, taking limbs and body parts from Sgt. Doakes, another member of the squad where Dexter works.

But fans of the TV show know that no such things have happened onscreen. In fact, producers say they have avoided overtly gory scenes; a recognition, Lindsay said, that the TV characters must be more appealing.

And although the TV Doakes has his suspicions, no one but Dexter's dead family members and his victims know his secret.

Lindsay also readily drops another well-practiced story: that he hated the idea of casting Hall as Dexter until he saw him speak one line. Now the author predicts "in a year or two, I'll be asking him, What would Dexter do?' "

"When you see it onscreen, you have to get the sense that here's a guy who is not feeling emotions, but he's faking them perfectly," Lindsay added. "He is, you know, not just a wolf in sheep's clothing, but a wolf who has grown his own sheep fur."

Keeping his head

Souvenirs of Dexter's latest life are sprinkled around Lindsay's crowded home. Photos from a set visit with the cast hang by the front door, while red-backed director's chairs with character names emblazoned on the back sit along another wall, below a huge, framed promotional poster for the series.

Dexter's success has even changed the family dynamic a bit. Married to a novelist who is Ernest Hemingway's niece - she came up with the twist that Dexter would save a drop of blood from each of his victims as a trophy - Lindsay was "Mr. Hemingway" for much of their time together.

Now he has spread his own wings, fantasizing about writing a script for the show or acting in some future episode. Raising three daughters, ages 18, 11 and 3 1/2, Lindsay also hopes to keep his offscreen life relatively sane, even as wider legions of fans discover his twisted creation.

"I knew several major stars, and they could seem to be really nice people - just like Dexter - but if their parking place is gone or their latte is cold, all of a sudden, the demon comes out," said Lindsay, explaining why he's not in a hurry to get back into Hollywood's orbit. "I don't want to get near that."

Through a nearly two-hour interview, there's just one question the author avoids: What happens if Dexter screws up and kills an innocent person?

"Umm, well, not to get too specific. . . that's my tease for Book 4."

Looks like he's got a few more years of uncomfortable success coming, after all.

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

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