Dexter Creator Dreams up a New Antihero
When faced with the dreaded question to which every novelist must submit—“Where did you get the idea for this book?”—Jeff Lindsay had a pretty great answer for Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the 2004 series launch that spawned seven follow-up novels and a hit Showtime series. As Lindsay tells it, he was speaking at a business lunch, looked out at his audience, and thought, Hey, maybe serial murder isn’t always a bad thing.
There was no such flash of mordant humor to zap the breath of life into Riley Wolfe, the master thief at the center of Lindsay’s newest novel, JUST WATCH ME. “I’m sorry to say that creating Riley was what us Southern folk call a ‘job of work,’” Lindsay says. “I wanted a new antihero, somebody who did awful things but made us like him anyway. It evolved [and] went through a lot of changes, until I came up with Riley Wolfe.”
The process took about two years, during which time Lindsay produced some 5,000 pages, “including the first two books of a fantasy series, which was sort of a side trip,” he says. The ultimate result of all that literary wandering is a character who makes Danny Ocean look about as sophisticated as a kid stealing video games from Target. In JUST WATCH ME’s dazzling opening set piece, superthief Riley Wolfe steals a heavily guarded 12-ton statue from a densely populated Chicago plaza—during its public dedication ceremony.
The heist plays out without a hitch, and therein lies the problem: Wolfe has gotten so good at stealing things that are supposedly theft-proof that he’s grown bored and dangerously complacent.
To spice things up, he sets out to swipe some of the most heavily guarded objects on the planet: the Crown Jewels of Iran, valued at billions of dollars and protected by the country’s much-feared Revolutionary Guard Corps. To pull off his impossible heist, Wolfe sets into motion a head-spinningly elaborate, months-long con that involves multiple identities, near-superhuman feats of cat burglary (Wolfe, a practitioner of parkour, prefers 25th-floor windows to ground-floor entrances), a beautiful art forger, and, since it’s a Jeff Lindsay novel, more than a couple of cold-blooded murders.
Even though Wolfe isn’t squeamish about spilling blood, he’s a far cry from Dexter Morgan, the weirdly endearing serial killer who landed Lindsay on the New York Times bestseller list after the writer’s previously published works, including a 1994 noir novel called Tropical Depression, failed to make a splash. Lindsay, who wrapped up the Dexter series in 2015 with the ominously titled Dexter Is Dead, says laying his popular character to rest wasn’t really an act of necessity—he was still enjoying writing the novels, which lasted two years longer than the television series and, as far as Lindsay was concerned, could’ve gone on for at least a few more.
“A lot of people were sort of nudging me to move on, hinting that I must be getting tired of it,” Lindsay remembers. “I didn’t want to let it go—I mean, I was in the zone with it. The books came quickly and easily, and I was doing what I really wanted to do—writing a series, like John D. MacDonald. Just maybe a little more twisted? And I finally realized that even though I wasn’t actually tired of Dexter, I could see it coming. I always promised my readers that I would never, ever just phone it in, that I would stop writing Dexter if it was getting tired. So I decided, okay, I should go out now, before that happens.”
The break wasn’t an easy one. All told, Lindsay spent more than a decade of his life writing Dexter and watching the character’s fan base grow. When he finally moved on, Lindsay went through what he calls “a bunch of ridiculous phases: separation anxiety, [a] sense of panic and loss, followed by mourning.”
Nearly five years later, he’s finally getting used to the idea of playing in different worlds. “It helps to have somebody like Riley that I can move on with,” he points out. “Like when you break up with a significant other and finally find the right Next One.”
Lindsay didn’t leap directly into the Riley Wolfe books, though. His first post-Dexter release was 2015’s Red Tide, a follow-up to his 1994 debut crime novel, Tropical Depression. Both books center on Billy Knight, an ex-cop based in Key West, Florida, and are anchored in the noir tradition exemplified by Raymond Chandler and his contemporaries.
Lindsay remains open to revisiting that character again someday, but Knight was quickly sidelined when Riley Wolfe captured Lindsay’s imagination. To create his new series character, Lindsay says he started with the idea of a con man protagonist and came up with a few basic plot twists; the rest evolved from there.
“I wanted to raise the stakes, and that turned into a story where the con is just one of the tools used,” Lindsay explains. “And I started to ask, what kind of character would do these things? To me, it always comes back to character. I came up with Riley Wolfe, a guy who steals things that are flat-out impossible to get. And I worked on what would make somebody turn into that guy, somebody who defines himself by always finding a way to do the impossible—always.”
At first glance, JUST WATCH ME is a dramatic departure for Lindsay. After eight novels about a serial killer who targets his own kind, a series about a master thief could seem almost quaint by comparison. Wolfe doesn’t mind getting his hands bloody, but if someone happens to get electrocuted, flung off a roof, or stabbed in the neck with a penis-handled knife (you’ll just have to read the book) while he’s working, well, they’re simply paying the price for getting in the way. For Dexter, killing was the point; for Wolfe, it’s more of a necessary evil. (Or a job perk, depending on the victim—Wolfe harbors a mighty grudge against the one percent.)
But as the new novel goes on, more similarities begin to emerge, and readers might wonder if Wolfe and Dexter are really such different creatures after all. Both men are products of a dark past that is slowly teased out, both have soft spots for cherished family members, and both are antiheroes in the true sense of the word—not simply the kind of misunderstood good guys who often get slapped with the label.
“They appeal to me for a couple of reasons,” Lindsay says of his fondness for protagonists who defy heroic conventions. “First, antiheroes are outsiders, and I’ve always felt like I was one, too. And then, I had this original impulse to create somebody who was awful on the face of it, but for some reason people liked him anyway. So Dexter is a lovable murderer and Riley Wolfe is a sympathetic thief, who also doesn’t mind killing when it’s part of the job.”
As for why these characters appeal so much to readers and viewers, Lindsay won’t hazard a guess. “I really don’t know,” he says. “But sometimes it makes me worry about what we really are.”
While JUST WATCH ME keeps Lindsay in his preferred territory in character terms, he says the elaborate con at the center of the story forced him out of his comfort zone in other ways, requiring the kind of meticulous plotting he’s never done before.
“It’s not anything I feel is inherently in my wheelhouse, and I never felt comfortable with it,” Lindsay allows. “I mean, I’m a guy who has trouble planning a trip to the mall, and to get all the gears and levers lined up in JUST WATCH ME, and then have them operate smoothly, that was something I’ve never done before. And I wasn’t sure I’d done it here, until my wife told me I had.”
Lindsay definitely plans to spend more time with Wolfe—Dutton signed on for two Riley Wolfe novels out of the gate, with the second tentatively slated for a December 2020 release. But he doesn’t have a strong sense yet of exactly where the series will go, and he’s happy letting the characters lead the way.
“As I said before, long-term planning is not my strong suit,” he says. “The things I think about are mostly in terms of where the characters might go, how they could change. And right now I’m about halfway through the second Riley Wolfe book and most of my thoughts are on where it goes in that story—and believe me, if the heist in JUST WATCH ME was impossible, we need a new word for what he’s trying in book two.”
And though Lindsay is wholly committed to Riley Wolfe’s adventures for the time being, he doesn’t entirely rule out the chance that Dexter Morgan could one day resurface.
“A very careful reading of the ending of Dexter Is Dead will reveal a very tiny window of possibility—what I call the Reichenbach Falls opening,” Lindsay teases. “If the right opportunity came along, I would be very happy to revisit Dexter. It’s always nice to hook up with old friends.”