We aren't usually asked to take fictional serial killers into our hearts, perhaps because it's a losing proposition. Hannibal Lecter is seductive, but he ain't lovable; you may feel for Tom Ripley, but you never want to hug him. Dexter Morgan, the strenuously affable narrator of Jeff Lindsay's Darkly Dreaming Dexter, may be the first serial killer who unabashedly solicits our love. A psychopath so cuddly and upstanding that he only murders ''bad people,'' Dex introduces himself one moonlit night as he gleefully snuffs the life of a child-killing priest. ''A few more neatly wrapped bags of garbage and my one small corner of the world is a neater, happier place,'' he announces. ''I enjoy my work. Sorry if that bothers you. Oh, very sorry, really. But there it is.''
Whether or not that does in fact bother you may determine whether you will be able to stomach this smirky first novel. Early in his childhood, a mysterious trauma planted in little Dex the urge to kill and dismember. He was subsequently adopted by a kindly cop who made a momentous decision: Rather than pack the budding monster off to an institution, he suggested Dex find a philanthropic outlet for his urges. (''There are plenty of people who deserve it, Dex...'')
Dexter has dutifully followed Pop's advice. All grown up now, he has an apartment, a girlfriend, and a day job with the Miami police. But by night he slaughters child molesters. Can a psycho like Dexter really keep his appetite under such tight control? Innocent Miami women begin turning up decapitated and posed in outrageously grisly tableaux. Dexter intuits more than he should about the crimes, which he also finds curiously beautiful and compelling. Details of the murders begin to appear in his dreams. Or are they more than dreams?
As Dexter grows increasingly aroused and inspired by these splashy new murders, sticking with his narrative becomes almost unbearably icky. The novel unravels in a nasty, campy denouement that leaves little doubt: Avowed serial killers, however tame, do not make appeaing protagonists over the long haul.