Serial killer novels: 10 of the best

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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  1. Vicky @ Books, Biscuits, and Tea Reply

    This post was definitely made for me. I’ve been looking for some new serial killer books to read for a while so thank you for the recommendations! I love the film version of The Silence of The Lambs and I’ve been meaning to pick up the book for a while. Also, I just added The Killer Inside Me to my wishlist.

    Thanks again!

    PS. Another one I really enjoyed was S.J. Bolton’s Now You See Me.

    1. scott blade Reply

      These are all good books! If you are looking for a book series to fill the hole that was left by losing Dexter or just want to try something new. Ck out my books on amazon or Shane Lasher is a lawyer who kills his guilty, murdering clients. And please follow me and leave a review. Good or bad!

    2. Lily Jamjar Reply

      Hi, Can anyone help me? I’ve been looking for a book that I read some time ago – can’t remember the title or author. It starts with a backpacker in the Himalayas stumbling over a body, the eyes have been gouged out, and he recognises the killer’s style. His girlfriend was killed in Africa by the same person. He discovers that the killer is part of an online “murder club” and goes by the name of “The Bull”. Eventually he tracks him down and traps him, with the help of some backpacking friends. Does this ring any bells with anyone?

        1. Lily Jamjar Reply

          Thank you so much – for various reasons (illness, husband’s major surgery) I have only just seen your note. I am really grateful, this is indeed the book I have been looking for!
          Grateful thanks

      1. crimefictionlover Reply

        Isn’t it also the case that it’s left ambiguous as to whether the character’s story is real or just a fantasy he has? So potentially he’s just an imaginary serial killer. Maybe.

  2. Kristopher Reply

    This is a very strong list. Thanks for the suggestions.

    I think that Monkeewrench is a very under-rated novel. It really was a very strong debut. Not sure any of the others in the series ever lived up to the potential in that first one, however.

    And the Dexter series shows that it just takes a really cool concept to turn a story upside down, making it original.

    1. MyBookishWays Reply

      You’re most welcome, Kristopher! I feel the same about Monkeewrench, and you’re right, I don’t think the rest lived up to it, BUT, have enjoyed the series nonetheless. I think the latest was the weakest, although I liked it:) Thanks for stopping by!

    2. crimefictionlover Reply

      I read that when it came out and have only read one subsequent book which I thought was quite weak in comparison.

        1. Kristopher Reply

          Yes, I agree. They all are good reads, just not as strong as #1. I think I really enjoyed the first 3 and then it started to go downhill for me. I have to confess I have not read the latest (not even sure if it is out in the US yet).

          1. MyBookishWays

            It is! I actually reviewed it on my own blog and it was reviewed here as well. I liked it a bit better than CFL 😀 Although, I think I might have been more forgiving since I was soooo excited after having waited so long for another one…

  3. Justin Gustainis Reply

    I certainly can’t quarrel with the inclusion of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS on this list, but I would point out that Michael Mann’s film MANHUNTER was based on RED DRAGON, the Thomas harris novel that preceded SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. So, it’s actually RED DRAGON that spawned two films. The second, using the novel’s actual name, was made to cash in on the immense popularity of the SOTL film.

  4. LongsightBlues Reply

    Although comic in tone, Tim Dorsey’s Serge Storms, who features in all but one of his Florida-set novels, is THE ultimate serial/spree killer in fiction. Style, creativity, a sense of justice, he’s Ted Bundy meets the Three Stooges. Serge certainly stomps all over the Dexter series, which started well but turned lame very quickly.
    Outside of the traditional crime field, Lester Ballard from Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God is a magnificently drawn character.

  5. Terrordales Reply

    Possibly not a serial killer, but I think The Blue Nowhere by Jeffry Deaver stands out. Not as good as Silence but a fair read. You probably won’t look at your computer the same again

  6. Anonymous-9n Reply

    You’ve got two of my favs up there. Girst, any list with Jim Thompson on it is a friend of mine. Second, Where Serpents Lie by T. Jeff is a great selection too. Of course Tom Harris is on the list, he also amazes me with his craft. Thanks MBW!

  7. Derek L Reply

    You’ve missed a great serial killer book!! The book is called “The Gemini Factor” by author Philip Fleishman (

    This novel focuses on two seemingly unrelated detectives pushed to their limits whilst investigating the cases of their lifetime. Gruesome identical murders in two different countries and a web of clues that these two detectives can only figure out once fate brings them together. The novel covers mind bending subjects such as the telepathic connection between twins and the relationship between random events. The serial killers have a unique and gruesome “calling card” they leave with their victims. The author’s meticulous attention to detail makes you feel like you’re there witnessing the crime scene and solving the case! highly recommend

  8. jennifer fegan Reply

    I saw a review of a book, written by a woman about one of the most distrubed fictional serials killers. I can’t for the life of me remember her name or the name of the book. I believe it was new in 2013.

    1. Lesley B Reply

      Maybe Chelsea Cain’s Gretchen Lowell? Terrific and addictive books. Extremely graphic but with well placed humor so I could handle reading them at night.

  9. Matty G Reply

    River by Roderick Thorp. Utterly, heartbreakingly true in its examination of evil. Can’t think of another book that ranks alongside it – and that may be a good thing.

  10. Ouisa Reply

    I’m trying to find a novel about a meek and quiet woman who lives two lives — the second is that of a sexually confident woman who seduces men then kills them with a knife. The double life is taking a toll on her and she is closer to being caught with each murder. Written by a man in the 1980s. Desperate to find the title again. Thanks!

      1. Ouisa Reply

        Hmmm, good question. I’m really not certain, although if I had to guess I would say American. I think he is/was a popular writer. Also, the main character killed men out of some sense of betrayal. However, she eventually met someone she trusted. Her dark impulses were torn over what to do with this relationship. I won’t spoil the end. I honestly can’t remember anything about the detective investigating the murders. It was the gradual decompensation of the main character that was most interesting. Ideas?

  11. Todd T. Reply

    I am trying to locate a book about a Serial Killer that was kept in a box as a boy with his puppy by his Dad and grows up to be huge and kills his Dad and is being controlled to kill. Probably from 70’s-80’s

    Great List!

      1. Todd T. Reply

        Hi Jeremy, It was a book I borrowed years ago and had to give back. I’m not real sure of the location but it was an American paperback book. The Serial Killer was enourmous and I’m not sure if he was controlled or just being watched on camera by some type of organization. Thanks for any help finding it. It was a cool book with a different plot that would be fun to read again.

  12. selenem Reply

    I’d like to recommend the Special X series of novels by Canadian author Michael Slade. Slade is the pseudonym of Jay Clark, a lawyer specializing in criminal insanity, and his various co-authors. Each novel follows the adventures of a team of Royal Canadian Mounted Police special officers called Special X, as they track serial killers. Headhunter is the first novel in the series, followed by Ghoul and several other novels. They include a lot of interesting information about Canadian law and police procedure, as well as touching on aspects of Canadian history such as the residential school system and the opening of the North West and the Mounties’ role in it. And they’re the only novels I’ve ever read that include a bibliography! Great stuff.

  13. Martin Richmond Reply

    The most hard-hitting serial killer book that I’ve read is without doubt, Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon. Better than his Silence of the Lambs, it doesn’t rely on the enigmatic Lecter who swamps Silence of the Lambs and has a more punishing structure that grips and doesn’t let go. One of the few books I had difficulty putting a bookmark inside to halt reading.

  14. Melissa Reply

    I’m looking for an older book about a group of serial killers conversing on the Internet. My husband read the book years ago but he can’t remember the author or the name of the book. If anyone has any suggestions I’d sure appreciate it. Thanks!

  15. Wayne Reply

    Hi. I’m looking for a novel about a police chief in an Amrrican town, searching for a serial killer called The Man, who chooses his victims alphabetically, and turns out to be the chief himself. Truly fascinating and you don’t know until the final chapter that it’s him. He’s totally unaware of his other side. I remember one scene where the “killer” personality blows up the “police chief” personality’s car by rolling a grenade underneath as he approaches. Thanks in advance.

  16. Luke Swain Reply

    I read this one book a while ago and I can’t figure out what it was called. I remember that the main character is a girl, and she only kills criminals. Her first victim a rapist that was found not guilty by the jury. I know it isn’t much to work on, but if somebody could help me out, it would be much appreciated.

  17. miguel a. oquendo Reply

    Well I’d read both Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs and could find nothing to equal Red Dragon not even “Silence….”. Even James Elroy admitted once to wanting to write a Serial Killer book as scary as…. but failed. But you know what see if (please) you can find a book for me, it is about a cop, don’t remember if he is Detective or just Deputy in a small town. There is s serial killer abouts. And the method of killing is these sticks that you put in someone’s head. Obviously somewhat sharp. And a bicycle connected to one of the killings is unearthed. And I think a corpse, a young black girl with those sticks (3 maybe) in her head. There is a great character in there (I think based on a real FBI agent) who is famed in the story and called John at times and other times Jack and this is the main hunter, who recruits the small town cop to hunt this guy down. This is also where I first heard of CODIS (think spelled). And I also believe that were it not for the young cop this guy would have kept killing for the cop killed him with the same three sticks. One more thing the sticks may have been something connected with a tribe in Africa known to use that weapon. I’d be grateful if you can locate it (title) for me.

    1. crimefictionlover Reply

      Hi Miguel, thanks for dropping by and commenting. I will ask one of our experts and put your query into the matrix. We’ll see what we can find out. Other readers might also recognise this and may comment too. cheers

  18. Larry Reply

    I’m looking for a novel I once read about a man investigating the death of his parents who stumbles on a cult of serial killers who live in some kind of gated compound

  19. Kathy Reply

    I’ve read many excellent serial killer novels, including some of these listed. Mercy by David Lindsey still stands out in my mind 25 years later as does Red Dragon.

  20. Rina Reply

    Great list, I’ll have to try them all!

    I was wondering if you could help me identify a book. I read the first part of it and it was intriguing but I can’t remember the title or too many details. It starts off with two children (they are friends, a boy and a girl) in a car with the boy’s mother. While driving, they spot some boys along the side of the road who look like they might be injured and his mother goes to have a look but she doesn’t return. I think the boy later becomes a doctor or detective who struggles with the disappearance of his mother while having to unravel a similar mystery.

  21. Gale Reply

    Chris Carter, by far one of the best authors I have read! Just wish I could find more of his books here in Canada. Read 2 and want to read them all, from page 1 it grabs you and doesn’t let go until the last page which leaves you wanting more !! Try him

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