Serial killers have become the modern iterations of the boogeyman: moving like shadows and seemingly unstoppable, they inspire terror that pulls at both the mind and heart.
There is a strong fascination with these murderers, and the real-life ones still impact our imaginations even decades after their respective crimes took place. This infatuation has led to many books, both fiction and nonfiction, that document the deeds of serial killers.
Best Fiction Serial Killer Books
Below are the best thriller novels that follow fictional serial killers:
1. Red Dragon (Hannibal Lecter Series) by Thomas Harris
Francis Dolarhyde is the Tooth Fairy. He goes around murdering entire families to help him transform into a being called the Great Red Dragon.
To stop him, FBI profiler Will Graham comes out of retirement and turns to the brilliant but dangerous Hannibal Lecter for help. But as he gets deeper into the case, he finds that he might not be fighting against one sociopath, but two. This is the first book in the Hannibal Lecter series.
2. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
While still a child, Dexter’s foster father recognized his sociopathy and taught him to use it in a “positive” direction. So now he only kills bad men.
When a series of murders disturb his hometown, he is reluctantly roped into solving the case. But the killer knows him well and slowly entices him into succumbing to his inner urges.
3. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Young, handsome, and rich, Patrick Bateman lives a life most would envy. But behind his charming facade is a hollow shell more interested with the intricacies of a business card than the lives of his fellow humans.
Wall Street banker by day and serial killer by night, Bateman lives to indulge in excess — whether its drugs, alcohol, or the occasional murder.
4. I Hunt Killers by Bary Lyga
As the son of the world’s premier serial killer, Jazz has seen murder from every angle. Now dad’s locked up for years, but killings are still plaguing the neighborhood.
To prove that murder doesn’t run in the family, Jazz joins the police in search of this new serial killer. But maybe he’s got more in common with his dad than he cares to admit…
5. The Bone Collector by Jeffrey Deaver
Lincoln Rhyme was once an authority in forensics, until an accident left him physically and emotionally broken. But now a dangerous killer’s on the loose.
Drawn back into the game, Rhyme has to figure out the killer’s motives before anyone else dies. But the killer is closer than he thinks and Rhyme may well be the next victim.
6. Invisible by James Patterson and David Ellis
Emmy Dockery is convinced there’s a link between hundreds of unsolved cases. Everyone else thinks she’s crazy, even her own ex-boyfriend.
But Emmy discovers a piece of evidence no one can ignore. The FBI kicks into high gear, frantically searching for any clue. And still, more murders are being reported each day…
7. The Snowman by Jo Nesbø
On every first snowfall, a woman disappears. The only clue the perpetrator leaves is a snowman. Even after 24 years of this pattern, the disappearances still remain a mystery.
Harry Hole suspects the murders he’s currently investigating is connected somehow. But the killer makes his own rules, drawing Harry deeper into his world of death.
8. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born with an excellent sense of smell. Apprenticing with a master perfumer, he learns the art of mixing herbs and oils to create the most pleasing scents.
Then he catches the scent that will drive him to create the ultimate perfume. And he will stop at nothing, not even murder, to create it.
9. Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite
Andrew Compton considers murder the most intimate art. Drawn to America, he teams up with another killer to push their art to new heights. Their canvas? A young, beautiful, gay man who they believe is the perfect medium for their art.
10. Psycho by Rober Bloch
Norman Bates loves his mother very much. Everyone thinks she’s dead but he knows better. She speaks to him, keeps him company, and protects him from the world.
Now Norman’s confused by his beautiful guest. He just can’t help but think filthy thoughts. Fortunately, mother’s always there to make things right.
Best Nonfiction Serial Killer Books
Sometimes, reality can be just as dark as the things we imagine. Below is a list of books about serial killers who terrorized humanity in real life.
11. The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber
He was a favorite son, the best husband, and a beloved father. And perhaps America’s most prolific serial killer. Dubbed “The Angel of Death,” nurse Charlie Cullen was responsible for the deaths of more than 300 patients.
Based on hundred of previously unseen documents, interviews, and recordings, Graeber weaves a disturbing tale of the monster behind the man.
12. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi
In 2000, Douglas Preston fulfilled his dream of moving to Italy. Then he finds out that the olive grove just outside his home was the scene of a famous double murder.
Intrigued, he meets with Italian journalist Mario Spezi to discover more. This is the result of their investigation on the man they believe to be the killer.
13. John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster by Sam L. Amirante and Danny Broderick
Sam Amirante was a lawyer fresh out of public service. Having just opened his own private practice, he receives a plea for help from Gacy, one of the most well-liked figures in the community.
What he didn’t know then was the extent of Gacy’s crimes. This is his first hand account on being the defense attorney to one of America’s most disturbing serial killers.
14. My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
To the public, Jeffrey Dahmer was the quintessential serial killer. But to Derk Backderf, he was once a friend he shared high school experiences with.
This is a portrait of a lonely and disturbed teenager on the path to murder. Backderf attempts to clear the mist over Dahmer’s almost mythological status, explaining why he became the monster he was.
15. A Serial Killer’s Daughter by Kerri Rawson
In 2005, Kerri Rawson woke up to the news that her father was arrested for killing 10 people. Her father was the BTK killer, a name he gave himself for the way he operated: bind, torture, kill. In this account, she explore the life of the killer she only knew as a loving family man and devoted church-goer.
16. Hell’s Princess by Harold Schechter
Belle Gunness lured a string of unsuspecting victims to her farm in Indiana, where they all vanished without a trace. She is thought to have killed 14 people while others speculate the number easily reaches 40. Schechter paints a terrifying picture of the killer who came to be known as Lady Bluebeard.
17. Lost Girls By Robert Kolker
When Shannan Gilbert disappeared after running and screaming through Oak Beach, no one thought much of it. After all, she was a paid escort running from who knows what.
But months later, on a nearby highway, four bodies are discovered, none of them Shannan’s. Further investigation reveals they’re all escorts from out of town, and fear begins to set in as locals speculate whether there’s a killer among them.
18. Gosnell by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer
Inside his clinic’s walls, Kermit Gosnell slaughtered born-alive infants and kept their feet as prizes. This only came to light when a detective followed a trail of a narcotics investigations to the clinic.
Written by investigative journalists, this book is a crisp, densely detailed account of Gosnell’s activities, including the reason why he expects history to vindicate his actions.
19. The Night Stalker by Philip Carlo
From 1984 to 1985, residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco were terrified of the dark. Come night, Richard Ramirez would break into homes, raping and torturing the unlucky occupants. Philip Carlo’s years of research and interviews with Ramirez creates a horrifying account of the killer’s life of crime.
20. Milat by Clive Small
Between 1989 and 1993, Ivan Milat would approach hitchhikers and offer them a ride to town. He’d then bring them to the forest, where he robbed and killed them.
Clive Small headed the investigation that led to Milat’s arrest. This is his personal account, spanning initial inquiries to the moment his team finally got Milat.
21. The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe
In September 1998, Claudia Rowe was doing freelance work for The New York Times when eight bodies were discovered in an apartment in Poughkeepsie, New York. The killer, Kendall Francois, was an unassuming community college student who shared the place with his family.
Intrigued by the man’s darkness, Rowe began a correspondence with Francois. This book is the result of four years’ worth of conversations about the intricacies of murder.
Humans are a curiosity-driven species; we want to know how and why things work. And in trying to understand the darker aspects of humanity, we turn to the worst people that humanity has to offer. By analyzing their actions and behaviors, we gain an understanding of what is considered good or evil.
But in studying these people, we inadvertently turn them into the myths and monsters that the masses fixate over. For example, John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown, solidified the identity of the evil clown — a trope that the horror industry frequently uses. His notoriety even influenced the creation of an urban legend: phantom clowns luring children into their vans, never to be seen again.
But perhaps a more mundane reason for their popularity is the need for entertainment. Serial killers are readily available and easily hated antagonists. At the end of the story, when they are captured or killed, readers feel the sense of satisfaction that good has triumphed over evil.
Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!