The infamous Dexter Morgan is now married and settled down... but of course, that hasn't really changed anything inside him. Or has it?
And "Dexter By Design" is a solid fourth entry in Jeff Lindsay's thriller series, about a serial killer who focuses his efforts on serial killers. While there's still a bit too much focus on Dexter's new home life and stepkids, Lindsay still laces the story plenty of incisive wit, weird and grotesque serial killings, and a general aura of overhanging darkness. And coq au vin, occasionally.
After a brief and mostly idyllic (except for some gruesome performance art) honeymoon in Paris, Dexter has returned to Miami as a devoted husband and family man, yada yada. He also returns just in time for a string of gruesome new murders: four people who are eviscerated, filled with weird stuff (fruit and sunscreen, among other things), and artfully arranged. When it causes a media storm, a reluctant Deb asks Dexter to please help her out with the investigation.
His own experiences (and the Dark Passenger) tell Dexter that this isn't an ordinary serial killer, but someone who seems to have a strange grudge against the tourist trade of Miami. Or something like that. Whatever But things get far more personal for our soulless anti-hero when Deb is viciously stabbed, and Dexter's killing of the serial killer only end up causing more trouble... because he got the wrong guy. The next murder is someone close to his family, and Dexter ends up on a race against time to keep them from being the next round of victims.
"Dexter By Design" is neither the best nor the worst of the Dexter series -- while it's better than the story that precedes it, it's not quite up to the brilliance of the first couple books. But it's a fairly solid thriller story taken on its own merits, laced with Jeff Lindsay's dark wit and macabre goings-on (as well as some bizarre new problems associated with being a stepdad -- such as the whole "poop van" scenario).
Lindsay juggles and eventually intertwines the two different sides of Dexter's bizarre life, in a style that mingles tongue-in-cheek wit with a sort of mellow sociopathy. He has a knack for weird descriptions (at one point Deborah looks like "a large and very angry fish, all teeth and wide eyes"), and Dexter's cool internal observations glide through the increasingly frenzied plot like a swathe of black silk ("... while the rest of the world went on its merry way, killing and brutalizing each other without me").
The most pressing flaw? Well, the first half's focus on Dexter's new family is a bit on the dull side, primarily because we're told rather than shown that Astor and Cody are disturbed kids. Fortunately Lindsay seems to realize this (as does Dexter) and things start smoothing out after that, with criminal investigations, kidnappings, revenge and ghastly performance art.
But the fascinating aspect of this book is Dexter himself -- he claims to be soulless and feel nothing, like a demon made flesh, and the Dark Passenger still revels in death and pain. But he seems to be developing some personal feelings for his new stepchildren ("I had a large and wonderful responsibility in taking charge of these two and keeping them safely on the Harry Path") and his distrustful sister Deborah, and even the flickerings of an embyronic conscience. These developments trouble and confuse him, while changing him enough that the character doesn't stagnate.
While not the best of the Dexter series, "Dexter By Design" is an interesting thriller that pushes his bloodstained anti-hero into some intriguing new dilemmas. Worth reading if you've enjoyed what came before it.