Notes on an Execution: A New Kind of Serial Killer Novel

Jacqueline Bublitz’s thriller Before You Know My Name was radical in that it focused on the victim, not the man who murdered her. Here, Bublitz reviews a novel with an equally feminist tenet, by New York literary agent and writer Danya Kukafka.

Ansel Packer has 12 hours to live. Waking up on this last day of his life, he has no apparent worry about the passage of time. Instead, Ansel seems to harbor a delicious sense of anticipation; he clearly has another kind of countdown in mind. One that involves a manipulated prison guard, a daring prison break, and the worldwide release of her theory, five scribbled notebooks containing her deepest thoughts of good, evil, and everything in between. Ansel confidently assumes that his manifesto will soon find an avid readership; though he’s riddled with smugness, it’s not hard to see why he might imagine an audience waiting for his work.

Because Ansel Packer is a serial killer of women. That special type of villain whose terrible crimes never fail to fascinate audiences. A man whose actions so often receive the kind of complicated attention and respect we typically reserve for celebrities (or lifelong crushes).

I don’t find this cultural obsession with serial killers surprising. The crimes committed by these men – and they are mostly men – are not only horrific, but they can be incomprehensibly daring. How did Ted Bundy take two young women to a busy lakeside on the same summer day without being noticed? How could he seemingly make a popular college student disappear when she was only a few feet from his dorm? credit Bundy and his ilk with some sort of evil genius, to see them as Machiavellian monsters we can study for clues about humanity’s abilities and failings.

Much has been made of how women in particular like to dive into the dark recesses of true crime. Theories abound as to why many of us have — like popular podcasters Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark — our favorite murders: We see ourselves in the stories. We are naturally more empathetic (hmmmm). We want to learn how to protect ourselves. Or my favorite – for women, true crime just might provide us with an outlet for all our latent rage.

In a way, this last assumption doesn’t feel like a stretch.

Danya Kukafka and her new novel. His 2017 debut album Girl In Snow became a best-seller and was picked up for TV (Picture: Supplied)

Whatever the reasons, and I suspect there are as many entry points as there are ways to be a woman, it’s clear that Danya Kukafka also doesn’t find our continued obsession with women surprising. serial killers. In the preface to my first copy of her second novel, Notes on an Execution, she acknowledges that the contradictions inherent in these murderous men next door can really hold us captive. Above all, even if she cannot look away, Kukafka refuses to be dazzled. In a line I will forever think of, it sets the tone for this mystery novel from the start: Average men get interesting when they start hurting women.

Kukafka’s stated goal is for this book to belong to women hurt by Ansel Packer. Notes on an Execution is not meant to be his story. The novel is not about him. And yet, it starts with him. He has to – he is the focal point, the crescendo in the lives of his victims. Not just the women and girls he murdered, but those who survived his carnage: Saffy, the detective who always knew what Ansel was capable of. Lavender, the mother whose choices as a young girl will inevitably be used to explore her son’s choices as a man. And Hazel, the sister-in-law who was both attracted and repelled by Ansel’s charms (much like the dance we sometimes find ourselves in as female readers).

Saffy, Lavender, and Hazel appear throughout the novel in alternate chapters that explore their lives and their connection to Ansel, both before and after he committed his crimes. While these origin stories are instantly recognizable – the determined foster child, the victimized bride who abandons her grandson, and the twin girl who can’t seem to part with her sister – Kukafka’s beautiful prose, grounded in deep understanding of the physical nature of the trauma, keeps all potential tropes at bay. For these women, love is a sigh. Jealousy between sisters, a human swamp. Fear is sour, truth, swollen. The mysteries become “cannibalistic”. Devouring himself so far [is] nothing but cartilage. Kukafka’s metaphors are evocative but never overbearing, and I desecrated the pages of my copy with dog ears and underlines; as someone obsessed with themes of trauma and survival, and how our bodies score, there were times when this book felt like a map.

On the surface, Ansel’s own backstory is one we also know, and not just through fiction. Abandoned child lost in the system. Maladjusted teenager without impulse control. Growing cruelty to animals and a slow rage against women who say no. We know this man now. But, in a novel dedicated to the women who survive him, Ansel’s story is undeniably gripping. Through Kukafka’s use of the second person, we are immersed in his experience of the world, even as we try to keep our distance from him. Readers interact with narrative devices in different ways; for me, when the second person is done well (see also Maggie in Lisa Taddeo’s three women), it feels like the most intimate reading experience. There is an immediacy in the use of ‘you’, an explicit nod to the act of reading itself. It’s a particularly smart choice for Ansel when we already know that he imagines he has something important to say, that he expects us to listen to him. As the hours slip away until his execution, we can’t help but bend over backwards.

Uncomfortable as that makes me, I found myself a little out of breath in the moments leading up to Ansel’s escape attempt; maybe part of me wanted him to succeed. I even felt a pang of sadness when the niece he tried to be a better man for fired him. Later, while waiting for his lethal injection, as Ansel reminds us that the government paid money for the “glorified table” he will soon be attached to, my stomach turned. He’s a sociopath, he imitates rather than feels what it means to be human, but Kukafka asks us not to lose our own humanity here. If we’re repulsed by Ansel taking lives in such a cold and calculated way, what are we to think of the rules and rituals that lead to a state-sanctioned zero hour for a man who doesn’t want to die?

The novel is not about him. How can it not be him, when there are lifetimes unlived because of his actions? And that’s where Kukafka picks up the narrative, handing it over definitively to Ansel’s speechless victims. In a poignantly titled chapter Elsewhere, we imagine the lives of the women and girls he murdered, if only they had been left alone. These moments that could have been are both beautiful and beautifully ordinary. Travel to other countries. Hold babies. Remembering to eat an orange in the sun. We see what the man who took their life could not. That an entire universe was contained within each woman. Life after life to live. She was still more than her end, the worst thing that ever happened to her. And it will only ever be the worst thing he’s ever done.

In this way, the story was never about him.

* The two women abducted from Lake Sammamish by Ted Bundy in July 1974 were 23-year-old Janice Ott and 19-year-old Denise Naslund. Georgeann Hawkins, 18, was the young woman abducted a month earlier while walking the short distance from her boyfriend. dormitory building to itself. If we know the name of the man who murdered them, we should also know the names of these women.

Notes on an Execution, by Danya Kukafka (Orion Publishing, $38) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

Bublitz’s novel Before You Knew My Name has landed on a long Ockham list, but has just been nominated for the Dublin Literary Award. Hooray! The book can be ordered from Unity Books Auckland and Wellingtonand you can read a review here.

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