Serial killers have long been a favorite villain in suspense novels, for readers and writers alike (including myself – the debut book in my Profiler series has my heroine hunting down the Bakersville Burier, a serial killer who buries his victims up to their necks deep in the woods).
Why do we keep coming back to serial killers? I think part of it is the element of danger – if there’s one victim and the rest of the book focuses on the investigation, that’s fine, but if the killer is still out there, still claiming more victims? It adds more tension. Another part of why we’re fascinated? Murders happen every day, and usually the motive is obvious, because the killer knew the victim. Not so with serial killers, which makes them an enigma.
Here are some of my personal favorites:
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris: Harris took three real-life serial killers and merged them into one to create Buffalo Bill, and then he made the infamous Hannibal Lecter – a serial killer himself – to profile Buffalo Bill. Throw in FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who somehow gets the job of interviewing Lecter, and you have a seriously creepy thriller.
The Perfect Husband by Lisa Gardner: “Because I was the one who loved you.” Those words spared heroine Tess Beckett’s life when her serial killer husband came after her with a bat. He’d murdered ten women, and she’d discovered the truth, but reminding him that she’d married him and borne his child showed a tiny ounce of compassion from the serial killer. The book picks up with Tess on the run five years later, and Beckett escaping from prison, now ready to kill his wife and kidnap his child. This was Gardner’s first big suspense book, and it’s a page-turner.
The Apprentice by Tess Gerritsen: The second book in Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series, it picks up after The Surgeon, in which serial killer Warren Hoyt ended a killing spree by coming after Jane Rizzoli. She’s still (physically and mentally) scarred from that encounter when someone else begins killing – and it looks like the work of Hoyt, who’s now locked away in prison. I love reading books in order, and reading The Surgeon first adds to the experience of reading this book, but I think The Apprentice was even scarier than the original!
The Bone Collector by Jeffery Deaver: The first in the Lincoln Rhyme series, featuring quadriplegic Rhymes and police officer Amelia Sachs. This particularly gruesome serial killer finds creative ways to kill his victims using old books, and Rhymes, who’s extremely intelligent but can’t physically chase after the killer, has to figure out how to outwit the killer, and let Sachs do the literal chasing. If you want a book that will keep you checking your windows at night, Deaver will deliver.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay: When I first heard about this book written in first person from the point of view of a serial killer, I was skeptical – and intrigued. But Lindsay made Dexter fascinating by creating a serial killer with a conscience – of sorts. Adopted by a police officer who recognized what he was from the start, and taught to use his desire to kill for “good,” Dexter only kills people who deserve it. Add in his job as a blood spatter expert for the police department and you’ve got a really engaging read from an author who actually makes you root for the serial killer!
Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell: When you read Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series, you’d swear the author actually worked as a medical examiner just like her protagonist (she did work in the office of one, but as a computer analyst). In her first outing, Kay Scarpetta chases after a serial strangler and uses forensic evidence and the help of Virginia cop Pete Marino, and introduces future FBI agent, Kay’s niece Lucy. There’s a reason the Scarpetta series is still going strong, and this is the book that kicked it all off.
Monkeewrench by P.J. Tracey: If you’re looking for some laughs mixed in with the fear, the first book by mother-daughter team P.J. Tracey is it. The book follows Grace McBride and her eccentric friends/coworkers at their computer software company. They’ve just put out a video game called Serial Killer Detective – and someone is copying the crimes in their game in real life. Quirky and witty without losing any steam on the plotting, this book is a fun scare!
Deeper than the Dead by Tami Hoag: The title of this book comes from the nickname for the workspace of the FBI’s profiling unit (back then, the Behavioral Science Unit, who worked “ten times deeper than the dead” in the sub-basement of Quantico). Hoag sets this story back when profiling was in its infancy, when cell phones weren’t around, and forensic science couldn’t do what it does now. It’s fun to see an investigation of a serial killer without the modern conveniences and Hoag never disappoints.
The Hunt by Allison Brennan: A gritty serial killer thriller mixed with a strong romance? Sounds unlikely, but that’s one of Brennan’s specialties. In The Hunt, Brennan’s heroine, Miranda Moore, escapes a killer known as The Butcher – but her friend doesn’t make it. Twelve years later, The Butcher is back and Miranda may be able to provide the details of her former captor to help the FBI find him, but only if she can stand the memories. Brennan’s books are addictive, and this one is part of a trilogy.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch: Part sci-fi, part-thriller, this futuristic book features a murder that happens in “the Archive,” a virtual reconstruction of Pittsburgh before it was destroyed. The hero is both obsessed with reliving his life with his now-dead wife and child in the Archive and chasing down a murder that someone is deleting from the Archive. This twisty, trippy tale turns into a serial killer thriller that will have you questioning whether you’re in a virtual world or the real one every step of the way.
About Elizabeth Heiter: Elizabeth Heiter writes suspense with strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range.
Elizabeth graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English Literature. She’s a member of International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Romance Writers of America. Her newest Profiler novel, SEIZED, was praised by Lee Child as being “suspenseful from the start and intriguing throughout” and J.T. Ellison said, “Elizabeth Heiter does her research, and it shows in this superb FBI thriller. With a ripped-from-the-headlines plot and excellent characterization, SEIZED is a true winner. Don’t miss it.”