Dexter

Who ever heard of a serial killer story where you root for the murderer? Dexter, which began its third season on Showtime this September, turns its viewers morally upside down -- but it's weirdly compelling. What makes the show work? First, Dexter is no ordinary sociopath. Taught by his policeman foster father to channel his urge to kill, he grows into a vigilante who kills only other murderers. We identify with the power of revenge -- and rationalize the fact that Dexter's victims are worse than he is, even as we witness the kills and participates in Dexter's blood fetishism. Second, Dexter has humility. Rather than feeling superior to emotionally frail human beings (à la Hannibal Lecter), Dexter describes himself as "hollow" and "damaged." Disguised, in effect, as an ordinary human being, he tries to figure out what regular people do in regular situations -- like cuddling on the couch with his girlfriend. Jeff Lindsay keeps his monster at an ironic distance in the 2004 novel that gave rise to Dexter, but the television series humanizes him. The first season chips away at his icy image, and the second finishes the job. Dexter protects his girlfriend from her violent ex-husband and effectively takes his place (he's just great with the kids). And revelations of his own family origins literally stun him with their emotional power. In the end, Dexter makes sense not so much as an emotionally isolated serial killer as a family man with an odd hobby. It's a tribute to this unusual saga that he can somehow be both.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

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Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).