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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.
Buy now on Amazon

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.
Buy now on Amazon

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.

Discussion

39 Responses to “Serial killer novels: 10 of the best”

  1. 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.

    Posted by Vicky @ Books, Biscuits, and Tea | February 15, 2013, 12:31 pm
  2. Great list, offering lots of new reading material. One of the creepiest serial killers I have ever encounteres is ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis.

    Posted by Marina Sofia | February 15, 2013, 12:37 pm
  3. No Tom Ripley? A stylish killer and a great role model.

    Posted by Paul D. Brazill | February 15, 2013, 12:39 pm
  4. 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.

    Posted by Kristopher | February 15, 2013, 1:57 pm
    • 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!

      Posted by MyBookishWays | February 15, 2013, 2:59 pm
    • I read that when it came out and have only read one subsequent book which I thought was quite weak in comparison.

      Posted by crimefictionlover | February 15, 2013, 5:43 pm
      • It’s too bad that you haven’t read the series. They’re all good and I even enjoyed the latest although I agreed that it was the weakest of the bunch.

        Posted by MyBookishWays | February 15, 2013, 7:18 pm
        • 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).

          Posted by Kristopher | February 15, 2013, 7:56 pm
          • 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 :-D Although, I think I might have been more forgiving since I was soooo excited after having waited so long for another one…

            Posted by MyBookishWays | February 15, 2013, 8:06 pm
  5. 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.

    Posted by Justin Gustainis | February 15, 2013, 3:32 pm
  6. 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.

    Posted by LongsightBlues | February 15, 2013, 10:21 pm
  7. Very nice list. I read most of them, and will check out the others.

    I second the Blackburn recommendation. It’s like Dexter with heart. Loved that books.

    Posted by JA Konrath | February 16, 2013, 12:39 am
  8. 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

    Posted by Terrordales | February 16, 2013, 11:28 am
  9. 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!

    Posted by Anonymous-9n | February 23, 2013, 1:21 pm
  10. Lincoln Rhyme Series by Jeffery Deaver is a must Read. I am sure you all will like it.

    Posted by Ranjith Chandran | March 11, 2013, 3:41 pm
  11. Trying to raise awareness in my harrowing first-person glimpse through the eyes of a serial killer. Somewhere between AMERICAN PSYCHO and DEXTER. Warning, sexual content! 18+ only!

    https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/306611

    Posted by John Cassian | April 25, 2013, 9:12 pm
  12. Theres only one by reason of insanity

    Posted by mike moloney | May 12, 2013, 8:19 pm
  13. You’ve missed a great serial killer book!! The book is called “The Gemini Factor” by author Philip Fleishman (http://www.philipfleishmanmd.com/).

    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

    Posted by Derek L | August 1, 2013, 10:50 pm
  14. 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.

    Posted by jennifer fegan | November 18, 2013, 2:33 am
  15. 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.

    Posted by Matty G | July 29, 2014, 10:29 pm

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