Richard is annoyed to be offered what he thinks is an ordinary murder, until he learns it's one of a series of events in which celebrities have suffered the same fates as their No Celebrities Were Harmed equivalents in a popular soap opera, The Northern Barstows, at the exact same moment as those fates were broadcast.
He investigates, with the assistance of Professor Barbara Corri, a glamorous female academic whose specialist subject is soap operas, and discovers that in the world of television nobody is who they appear to be, onscreen or off.
As the investigation heats up, they find themselves racing the clock with the announcement that two new characters will be joining The Northern Barstows: an occult detective and a glamorous female academic...
The Serial Murders provides examples of:
- Auction of Evil: Near the end of the story, Richard and Barbara attend a presentation in which the villain intends to demonstrate his murder method for the benefit of potential clients — with Richard and Barbara as the subjects of the demonstration.
- Backup Twin: Discussed; it's mentioned that the soap opera once replaced a character with a previously-unsuspected twin from Australia, played by the same actor.
- Biting-the-Hand Humor: Of a sort; when someone jokingly says that commercial television was the invention of Satan, it's suggested that this is literally true. Most of the 1970s TV shows that influence the Jeperson stories, however, were themselves broadcast on British commercial television.
- Bland-Name Product: Standard practice on The Northern Barstows.
- Bus Crash: The fate that lies in store for any character whose actress starts getting more popular than the show's star.
- Call-Forward: Adam Onions, the man from IΨT, has a larger role in Swellhead, which is set after this but was written first.
- Camp Straight: Lionel Dilkes, the extremely camp PR man, admits to Richard that he's actually not at all homosexual, just playing up to people's expectations of his profession.
- Canon Welding: One of the prospective clients at the Auction of Evil is the villain of Newman's non-series novel Bad Dreams.
- Celebrity Resemblance: When they learn they're going to have characters based on them, Richard mentions that people keep telling him he looks like Peter Wyngarde, while Vanessa suggests he could also be played by Peter Cushing, and Barbara says she's "always being mistaken for some woman who wears fangs in Hammer Films".
- Character Name Alias: The mastermind behind the murder-for-hire scheme uses the alias 'Darrius Barstow' when dealing with underworld: Darius Barstow being a long dead character on The Northern Barstows.
- Cool Car: Richard's Rolls Royce ShadowShark.
- Costume Porn: As usual, Richard Jeperson's eye-searingly-1970s outfits are described in loving detail.
- Defictionalization: It's mentioned that there was an attempt to market a beer under the name of the Bland-Name Product beer that everyone drinks down t' pub in The Northern Barstows; unfortunately the product itself wasn't any good, and nobody bought it.
- Did Not Think This Through: The villain gets a bit over-confident with his special abilities and ends up holding an Auction of Evil using a special version of the show that he's written, filmed and approved to show off his abilities and sell them to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, he's forgotten that the producer gets final approval of the episode and the director of the network gets final say over what goes out on the air... and neither of them are on his side.
- Explaining the Soap: Vanessa has to do this for Richard when The Northern Barstows becomes relevant to their interests; Richard doesn't watch commercial television, because he knows its true sinister purpose. By the end of the story, he's watching the show himself — just to make sure it's all sorted, you understand.
- Footnote Fever: Like all the more recent stories in the series, includes endnotes explaining obscure historical or cultural details that might not be familiar to foreign readers. The cultural notes are pretty reliable, but the historical notes are written from an In-Universe perspective and have a habit of not distinguishing between genuine history and Shout Outs to other works of fiction.
- Hollywood Voodoo: The kind that involves voodoo dolls is central to the plot. The twist is that the "dolls" are the No Celebrities Were Harmed fictional versions of real people who appear on The Northern Barstows, usually wearing an item of clothing that (unbeknownst to the actors) was stolen from the target.
- Legitimate Businessmen's Social Club: Discussed. The villain introduces Richard to a couple of really obvious Legitimate Businessmen, present to bid on using the villain's powers for assassination. Jeperson quips that the men must be "olive oil salesmen", in reference to the legitimate business of the Corleones in The Godfather. They appreciate the joke, but the villain — who is both uncultured and not as smart as he thinks — is lost.
- My Local: Among the stock locations on The Northern Barstows is the local pub, where many a time somebody has staggered through the doors to make a dramatic announcement to the gathered drinkers.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Most of the rich and famous characters depicted on the soap opera, to the point that it's been said you haven't really made it in Britain until you've been misrepresented on The Northern Barstows.
- No Communities Were Harmed: The Northern Barstows is set in the city of "Bleeds" in the county of "Northshire", and the characters speak in an accent that's recognisably Oop North without being from anywhere in particular.
- The Nth Doctor: Its use on the show is discussed, with the example of a character who left the show then was brought back played by a different actress with the excuse of having had Magic Plastic Surgery.
- Oh, Crap!: At the end, after preemptively gloating over his victory to Richard and Barbara, when the episode actually begins airing the villain instantly recognises that it's not the one he wrote, directed and edited... and that the doors are locked and the phones disconnected in the screening room he's currently in. His reaction is... not dignified.
- The Other Darrin: Discussed during a writers' meeting Richard and Barbara sit in on, with Barbara helpfully explaining to Richard the difference between a "Darrin" and a "Who", and the derivations of each.
- Out with a Bang: A jockey is literally 'ridden to death' by his girlfriend, who was using a whip and spurs.
- Prime Time Soap: The Northern Barstows is one.
- Put on a Bus: A common occurence in The Northern Barstows.
- Repeating so the Audience Can Hear: A notorious feature of The Northern Barstows is that whenever something happens that the writers couldn't afford, couldn't fit, or just couldn't be bothered to show on screen, they deliver the necessary exposition by writing a scene in which Ben Barstow receives a phone call telling him all about it — or rather, stands with a phone to his ear "repeating" the information for the benefit of the audience. "Morrie's Boom-Boom Room Hot Spot has burned down t' the ground? In a mysterious fire t' police say might well be arson? Eeh, I'm right astonished!"
- Romance on the Set: Invoked: as part of the magical weirdness pinging around the set of The Northern Barstows, Richard and Barbara's romantic tension is reflected with the two actors playing the characters who are based on them beginning to fall in love as well.
- Sex Magic: Richard ends up having threesome to conclude a magic ritual, though it's not clear if this is a part of the ritual or everyone just getting worked up.
- Soap Within a Show: The Northern Barstows.
- Villainous Breakdown: The villain ends up literally eating his hat.
- Voodoo Doll: It turns out that the No Celebrities Were Harmed characters on the show are being used as voodoo dolls, powered by the belief of the audience. When the characters come to grief, the celebrities are harmed.
- Wag the Director (In-Universe): The actress who plays Mavis Barstow, the central character of The Northern Barstows, is also one of the producers and whatever she says goes.
- Wicked Cultured: Inverted: the villain, as might be gathered from the trashy soap opera he writes, is something of a philistine and has very trashy tastes.