:: Article

Finding the Killer Scene

By Karl Whitney.


Daniel Morris, Thrillkillville, Future Fiction, 2010.

In recent years David Peace has set the bar extremely high when it comes to the fictionalisation of actual events. Peace’s novels are preoccupied with the fragmentary and unreliable nature of subjective consciousness, with characters frequently pushed to the point of psychological meltdown by a combination of their own neuroses and dark conspiracies, plotted by property developers, politicians and, in one notable case, the Leeds United squad.

Similarly concerned with exploring fact through fiction, Daniel Morris’s debut novel takes as its starting point the murder in Miami Beach of the fashion designer Gianni Versace by Andrew Cunanan in July 1997. With its heady mix of senseless violence, homosexuality (Cunanan was gay, and the targets he chose were mostly gay men) and celebrity, the story was instantaneously lapped up by the media. The murder of Versace was the endpoint of a killing spree that had brought Cunanan across the United States, and began with the killing of a friend, closely followed by Cunanan’s ex-partner.

The novel doesn’t emphasise the salaciousness that so exercised the tabloids, choosing instead to re-enact the movements and channel the paranoid mindset of Cunanan, bringing its approach close to that of David Peace.

But this approach soon runs into trouble: throughout the book, Morris also shows the influence of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk, by no means wholly bad writers, but neither particularly concerned with psychology or motivation; in fact, both actively reject such notions, preferring instead a concern with the surface of things, and the shock of a seemingly-random violence, a shock that frequently loses its power through repetition. Perhaps the material, on a surface level suits this approach – Cunanan shot many of his victims, but, inexplicably, tortured and killed one in Chicago – but the novel begins to come unstuck early on, oscillating between two contradictory impulses: it is torn between probing more deeply into events and trying to actively reject any meaningful reading of Cunanan’s actions. The latter impulse is undoubtedly meant to unsettle the reader, but, when it clashes with the urge to know more, to read the events, its effect is neutralised.

This story has violence, alright, but what, as a novelist, are you going to do with that violence? What, if anything, does that violence signify? Morris throws shapes early on, seemingly to point the way towards an examination of the shallow nature of celebrity, and the effect of such a meretricious system on Cunanan. ‘Contemplate the surface’, the narrator urges. (The book is narrated, unconvincingly at times, by Cunanan, from beyond the grave, ‘wearing my own brains on my chin’ – he ended his spree by taking his own life with a shotgun.)

This contemplation of the surface can only last so long; there are only so many lists of songs playing on the radio at the time of the spree one can take before you start to wonder: is that all there is? Is Cunanan the half-hearted confidence trickster Morris portrays, shorn of any motivation save the slights he has suffered as a poor outsider in a wealthy milieu (some scenes show Cunanan adopt another identity – Andrew DeSilva – in order to rub shoulders with the rich)? Or is he a cipher, an empty space, whose motivations are a mystery to himself, and, ultimately, to the reader as well? At one point Morris moots the possibility that Cunanan was HIV positive, before shooting down such a possible motivation: Cunanan takes a blood test, and the results are negative.

This refusal of signification is explicitly addressed by the novel at certain points:

Andrew Kyoo-non-un [one of the ways in which the author renders Cunanan’s name phonetically] is not emblematic of anything; he is no symptom of any larger cultural disease, no barometer for the state of American society. His rampage offers no insights into the inner lives of America’s young or America’s gay or America’s celebrity-obsessed or even America’s disturbed. He is just a deranged man. He killed some people.

Fair enough, but why does he have to be deranged, then? Can he not be completely in control of his actions? If he was, his actions would have appeared even more disturbing. But he isn’t, and they don’t. Instead it flits between the random (he kills Versace after seeing a photo story about the designer’s houseboat in a magazine, although also claimed to have met him at some point in the past) and the determined (you have to kill these people, don’t you? There’s no point in asking why).

In fact, for a novel that puts so much emphasis on the actions of its protagonist, the murder scenes are strangely muted: there are no instances of baroque violence, not even in the case of his third victim, Lee Miglin, a Chicago property developer, who Cunanan tortured with garden shears and a saw before killing. How the murderer met, or if he already knew, Miglin is left unexplored, perhaps pointing towards Cunanan’s opaque motivations, but at the same time, feeling like a loose end. If Cunanan knew his first two victims, surely it would be interesting to know what place Miglin occupies in Cunanan’s rapid trajectory from the personal sphere to the global, from killing an acquaintance to putting two bullets in Gianni Versace?

Later on, Morris acknowledges both the difficulty of probing for motivation and the fictional nature of his own book by having a writer character (presumably meant to be the author himself) meet another character, named ‘Andrew DeSilva’ (Cunanan, under cover?), to discuss Cunanan. Even this scene trails off, failing to give any insight into Cunanan. (I know, I know – he’s unknowable, and that’s the point.) Regardless of its place within the narrative, the scene feels like tacked on, second-hand metafiction of the worst kind.

In spite of this, there are many fine passages of writing from Morris, including an excellent description of California’s infinite suburbs, and of cities on the West Coast (‘islands of light in the immense darkness at the western edge of America’). These passages point to better work in the future from the author.

Ultimately, though, the novel fails to get to grips with Cunanan as an individual with real – albeit disturbed – motivations, operating in an unreal world of celebrity and wealth. Its apparent attempt to focus solely on the surface of things collapses, leaving no answers, merely questions – not just about Cunanan, but also about the choices made by the author – that remain unanswered.


Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 18th, 2010.