A work of fiction closely based on the life story of a real, living person is a strange thing.
The intellectual French writer Marc Dugain tries to explain what he is doing in The Avenue of the Giants with a postscript: “To put a real person into a novel is to betray him, all the better to reveal what we perceive as his reality.”
The real person Dugain has chosen to fictionalise is Edmund Kemper, the notorious Co-ed serial killer, responsible for the deaths of his grandparents when he was just 15, then at least four hitchhiking female college students, then his mother and her best friend.
Kemper, a tall, awkward and anti-social teenager, was locked up in a psychiatric hospital. Years later he was declared cured.
But instead, this highly intelligent man had learned more about how to feed his obsessions. Al Kenner becomes a murderer with psychiatric insight: he knows why he wants to decapitate women before sex but this doesn’t stop him doing it. Much is made of his friendship with the policeman on his case. He discusses the murders with him, gives lifts to his daughter.
This is not an attempt to justify Kenner’s horrific crimes. It’s an examination. The reader is led inside his mind to experience his life, his difficult mother, his hopeless inability to connect with women. Dugain shies away from poring over the crimes.
Crime, punishment, individuality and psychiatric treatment are all closely examined in the hands of this assured storyteller. But there is no obvious answer as to why Kenner becomes a monster.