Serial killer novels: 10 of the best

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I-Am-Not-A-Serial-Killer-UKThe traditional definition of a serial killer is a person who has killed three or more people. Individuals who can single-handedly spread this kind of death and destruction have been a terrifying part of our collective conscience for centuries. Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, Dennis ‘Bind, Torture, Kill’ Rader, Ted Bundy, Fred West… the list goes on and on. And we read about serial killers to this day with morbid fascination, especially as they make such chilling adversaries for the heroes and heroines of crime fiction. They’re certainly a subject that is revisited time and time again. So we decided to highlight a few favourites. Some of these are out of print in the UK, but it’s fairly easy – and well worth it – to snag a used copy.

SilenceOfTheLambsThe Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Perhaps the best known of them all… There’s a fearsome killer on the loose and he’s been dubbed Buffalo Bill. New FBI agent Clarisse Starling is tasked with questioning the one man that may be able to help capture him, the imprisoned serial killer Dr Hannibal Lector. She’s forced to confront her own childhood demons and look inside herself to catch the murderer. The Silence of the Lambs is certainly one of the most popular serial killer novels, and it and its prequel, Red Dragon spawned two films – Manhunter in 1986, and Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Both are superb and terrifying, but we also reckon that Thomas Harris’ book is a must have for any crime/mystery library.
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TheKillerInsideMeThe Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
Texas native Jim Thompson was the author of more than 30 novels, and known for his particularly gritty pulp sensibility. Published in 1952, The Killer Inside Me is about Texas Sheriff Lou Ford, who is hiding a very different side of himself from a community that admires him. Told in first person, it gives a chilling glimpse into the mind of a killer whose sexually violent tendencies threaten to take over his entire personality. The Killer Inside me was also made into a film in 2010, starring Casey Affleck, Jessica Alba, and Kate Hudson.
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CriminalCriminal by Karin Slaughter
Criminal is Slaughter’s sixth book to feature Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Agent Will Trent, and is the first one to dig deep into Trent’s childhood and the horrific killer that molded his future. You really can’t go wrong with any of Karin Slaughter’s novels, especially if you like your crime stories with a distinctive southern grit and flavour, but Criminal is a jewel in her proverbial crown. Emotional and disturbing, this will keep you turning pages late into the evening. Oh, and doesn’t this author have the most appropriate name in crime fiction? Let us know what you think.
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MonkeewrenchMonkeewrench by PJ Tracy
Entitled Want to Play? for its UK release, Monkeewrench introduces the damaged and emotionally distant Grace McBride. She, along with her colourful colleagues at software company Monkeewrench, must capture a killer who is using their new game Serial Killer Detective as a template for a killing spree. Yes, real life is mirroring art, with the most brutal of consequences. The author plumbs some pretty dark territory and the addition of quirky characters makes it a fast and furious read. This was great debut to a fairly solid series which peters off a little in the latest, Off the Grid.
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WhereSerpentsLieWhere Serpents Lie by T Jefferson Parker
In Where Serpents Lie, Parker takes us to Southern California, where Terry Naughton of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department is hunting a particularly nasty child killer who has been dubbed The Horridus. T Jefferson Parker writes consistently excellent crime fiction, but Where Serpents Lie is absolutely terrifying, and the snakes in the title aren’t metaphorical.
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MercyMercy by David Lindsey
In my opinion, Detective Carmen Palma is one of the most fascinating creations in crime fiction, and in Mercy, she must track down a very vicious and cunning sexual killer who seems to be anything but a stranger to the victims, and may in fact even be welcomed into their homes. David Lindsey is one of the best, and his Houston-based novels are atmospheric, complex, and haunting.
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WhenSheWasBadWhen She Was Bad by Jonathan Nasaw
Former FBI agent EL Pender has quite a bit on his hands with this terrifying thriller. Lily DeVries and Ulysses Maxwell are in love, and they’re also quite mad. After a blood-soaked escape from the mental institution where they were both housed, they proceed to engage in a terrifying crime spree. Pender, along with psychiatrist Dr Irene Cogan, must catch these two in order to stop their reign of terror. This one is clever and unputdownable.
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DarklyDreamingDexterThe Dexter Series by Jeff Lindsay
It’s tough to pick a single book out of this superb series by Jeff Lindsay. Dexter Morgan, a blood spatter analyst with the Miami-Metro Police Department, has another side to him. A dark side. In fact, calls the source of his homicidal fantasies his ‘Dark Passenger’. Dexter does have a code, however, instilled in him by his father, a police detective, who recognised his proclivities early on. Dexter only targets criminals of the most heinous sort, who he thinks may escape justice, and deals them a little justice of his own. Start with Darkly Dreaming Dexter, and work your way along.  This series also gave birth to a cable series called Dexter, which has been a hit. If you like novels in this vein, also try the John Cleaver series by Dan Wells, beginning with I Am Not a Serial Killer, which features a similar protagonist.
Darkly Dreaming on Amazon

RustyNailRusty Nail by JA Konrath
The third in JA Konrath’s wonderful Jack Daniels series, featuring Lt Jacqueline Daniels of the Chicago Police Dept, introduces a diabolical and unique killer that gives Jack a run for her money, and then some. Part of the charm in this series lies in how the author manages to make you laugh out loud in the middle of some pretty gruesome situations, without taking away from the story. Jack is one of my favorite female detectives in crime fiction today, and the killer in this one will knock your socks off.
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psychoPsycho by Robert Bloch
Last, but certainly not least, is Psycho by Robert Bloch. Published in 1959, Psycho’s main character is someone just about everyone has heard of: Norman Bates. He was partly based on real-life killer Ed Gein, and the novel is one of the most famous examples of American Gothic. Norman Bates remains one of the creepiest characters in crime fiction, and horror, and also one of the most famous, thanks to the wonderful film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960, starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.
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Do you have a favourite fictional serial killer? Think we’ve missed a great serial killer book? Tell us in the comments below.


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