Sunday, February 7, 2010

By Reason of Insanity by Shane Stevens (serial killer novel)

With his book By Reason of Insanity, author Shane Stevens has created one of the classic novels of the serial killer subgenre. He approaches the exploits of Thomas Bishop — serial murderer and son of Sara Bishop, who was assaulted by robber-rapist Caryl Chessman — with a detachment usually reserved for news reports.

This gives By Reason of Insanity the feel of a true-crime book, though Stevens's book is otherwise brilliant imagination. Here's a sample from the early pages that sets the scene: "Caryl Chessman's death at the start of the sixties marked the beginning of an age of bloodletting with is not yet over.... To see why and how this came about, one must first go back to the early postwar years of Los Angeles."

This is not to say that Stevens missed out on the emotional impact Bishop's actions have on his victims' families. To wit, this passage: "Unlike the average layman, he understood precisely what was written in the report, and as he read he saw exactly what had been done to his daughter. Tears welled in his eyes; he found it hard to swallow. The one who had done these things was a devil."

But a highly intelligent and astute devil, as we see when Bishop plans his escape from the state hospital he has called home for the last 15 years, since he burned his abusive mother alive in their wood stove at age ten. He acquires some very recognizable accessories and becomes known for having them always with him.

Then he befriends another man, Vincent Mungo, and invites him along on the escape, during with they exchange clothes and Bishop kills and butchers Mungo unidentifiably, leaving the accessories on him. For four months, the police are looking for Mungo and thinking Bishop is dead while Bishop goes on a murder spree — going from location to location, and identity to identity, keeping one step ahead (and sometimes only one step ahead) of the hunters.

This is chronicled in detail by Stevens's skillful hand, which it seems can handle innumerable characters with all their various histories and ambitions. So much happens with so few words that By Reason of Insanity could easily have been stretched out to a four-book series by a less disciplined writer.

After three months of police failure, Newstime magazine, the main coverer of the Mungo story, sends its star reporter (and current case expert) Adam Kenton on a one-man manhunt. Kenton will use all the resources at Newstime's disposal — even the highly guarded confidential sources — and will have all the money he needs, provided he "captures" Mungo before the police do.

If the police catch the killer first, Kenton will be considered as having failed. Also, Kenton cannot tell anyone what he is doing — all communication is to be coded — and he must act fast, because who knows when the police may close in on their shared target.

By Reason of Insanity is divided into three sections. The first ("Thomas Bishop") focuses on Bishop's mother, his childhood, his time incarcerated, and his subsequent escape and reign of terror. The second portion ("Adam Kenton") tells the story of that point primarily from the viewpoint of the reporter, showing his investigation with the suspense inherent in such a risky venture that may end unexpectedly.

Then the final section ("Thomas Bishop and Adam Kenton") closes in on the inevitable meeting of the two, and we realize that Bishop and Kenton are more similar than perhaps the reporter would like to believe. We get some insight into Kenton's thought processes, but this is mostly used to show that he has begun to think like Bishop and guess his next actions.

As I mentioned, the usual tone is one of distance, so when Stevens does occasionally address the reader directly, it has a very powerful effect. By Reason of Insanity also includes several well-placed moments of dry humor, and it seems Stevens has a particularly snide view of a popular nightly broadcast:
That evening he ... fell asleep watching a TV show that featured a double rape by a gang of toughs, a murder in which pools of blood were shown close up, a child thrown out of a fifth-floor window by a parent, and a shoot-out between police and a gunman holding hostages. All of which occurred in the first fifteen minutes. The program was called the Eleven O'Clock Evening News.
By Reason of Insanity is a wholly absorbing book is recommended for those with strong stomachs and hearts. Shane Stevens has written the serial killer novel that all others should be compared to. (Yes, even Thomas Harris's.) It is dated in some ways, primarily how in 1973, Bishop gets away with stealing identities and leaving DNA at crime scenes, two things that would never be allowed now, almost 40 years later. But, though it is a snapshot of its time, it is even more a timeless portrait of the mind of a murderer, something that will likely never go out of style.


Steve M said...

I remember reading this years ago, enjoyed it alot although I felt the centre part was too long.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

As much as I like By Reason of Insanity I think that the "serial killer novel that all others should be compared to" is Blackburn by Bradley Denton.

Glad to see this written up though. You should have done it as a Friday's Forgotten Book.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Brian. If I read Blackburn, I may change my mind.

As for Friday's Forgotten Books, I do one of those reviews occasionally, but I have my own definitions of what a forgotten book is, and the first one is that it must be out of print.

See you around The Big Adios!

Nav said...

I read this years ago and really wish I had kept it but I didn't realise then how great and rare this book was/is. Without a doubt the best written serial killer book ever.

Nav Q

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for your comment.

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