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 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...
Can be read at Kim Newman's website, here
The Serial Murders provides examples of:
- Actually Pretty Funny: The two mafioso who show up at the Auction of Evil actually chuckle when Richard identifies them as "olive oil salesman." Squires, an uncultured idiot with pretensions above his station, misses the reference and is utterly lost however.
- 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 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.
- Adam Onions, the man from IΨT, has a larger role in Swellhead, which is set after this but was written first.
- One of the participants in the attempted Auction of Evil is a General Skinner, who Richard sees as some kind of Humanoid Abomination. This implies that he may be the same Skinner as the villain of the earlier-written but later-set novel Bad Dreams, or possibly an alternate timeline version of him.
- Camp Straight: Lionel Dilkes, the extremely camp PR man, admits to Richard that he's 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".
- Fred compares Marcus Squiers to Donald Pleasence.
- 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 is 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.
- Expy: The Northern Barstows is an in-universe version of Coronation Street, having started in the 1960s as a rather earnest and serious Kitchen Sink Drama type of show about a reasonably realistic approximation of Northern English life, only to gradually become increasingly soapy, melodramatic and over-the-top to retain audiences. And only part of that was because of all the voodoo.
- 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. As described in more detail at the trope page, the stereotypical "voodoo doll" actually comes from European folk magic and is not common in real-world Vodou.
- 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 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"note in the county of "Northshire", and the characters speak in an accent that's recognisably Oop North without being from anywhere in particular.
- Not So Above It All: Invoked by the end, when Richard notes that even though the bad guys have been defeated and the spells working around the show cast into the aether, he'll probably still have to keep watching the show just to make sure that nothing iffy is going on from this point onwards. Earlier, after Richard's made a rather high-and-mighty speech denouncing television in all its forms, Fred notes that despite this Richard is still an avid viewer of Doctor Who.
- 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 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.
- Pretty Fly for a White Guy: The villains are white people practising Hollywood Voodoo. The Haitian wardrobe-mistress on the show turns out to be a born-and-bred practitioner of Hollywood Voodoo, who helps Richard partly out of general moral revulsion for murder but also out of anger at this cultural appropriation.
- Prime Time Soap: The Northern Barstows is one.
- Put on a Bus: A common occurrence 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.
- Totally Not a Criminal Front: Discussed. The villain introduces Richard to a couple of really obvious fronts, present to bid on using the villain's powers for assassination. Jeperson quips that the men must be "olive oil salesmen", referencing the "legitimate business" of the Corleones in The Godfather. They appreciate the joke, but the villain — who is neither as smart nor as cultured as he thinks he is — is lost.
- 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.
- Your Head Asplode: The villain intends to cause this to happen to Barbara.