10 Must-Read Non-Fiction Books About Serial Killers and True Crimes ‹ CrimeReads
“Write what you know,” they say. Which, on the face of it, is good advice. How about writing about murder? What if, like me, your book is about the most depraved killers the world has ever known? Then, just maybe, you write down what you can search for.
My new novel echo man, centers on a serial killer who draws inspiration from infamous murderers of the past, the ultimate copycat killer. But imitation is not enough: he is ready to complete his own masterpiece. And it will be more gruesome than anything that has come before.
At this exact moment, there are over 100,000 true crime books listed on Amazon. The choice is mind-boggling. I can’t claim to have read even a fraction of them, but I know from experience that some of them are incredible. When I was writing echo man I’ve gone through over two dozen biographies of serial killers, and many more on the subject of criminology and psychopathy. I’ve demolished true crime podcasts and countless documentaries; I must be one of the few to go through them with a notebook.
So here are my favorites.
Let’s start with serial killers. As my fictional murderer, The Echo Man, copies real killers, it was important for me to get the facts right. And not just the little details but also the psychology of why he killed and how.
There was no way I was writing about actual serial killers without including Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Probably the most infamous, and to me, the most fascinating. They were men who, at first glance, had everything going for them, but could not suppress their deepest and most depraved desires.
There are hundreds of books, thousands even, on Ted Bundy. But my favorite has to be Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth. The perpetrators were journalists, having had unprecedented access to Bundy in the years leading up to his execution. Their interviews, transcribed verbatim in this book, provide unique insight into the workings of Bundy’s consciousness. (The book, The only living witnesswas also based on these interviews.)
While the above provides a time-lapse snippet of Bundy’s state of mind, Brian Masters Jeffrey Dahmer’s Sanctuary, is a comprehensive account of the serial killer’s childhood, upbringing and adult life. Detailed and meticulously researched, Masters explores the psyche of the man who, when arrested in 1991, had a severed head in his fridge and two others in the freezer.
A serial killer that remains unknown to this day is the Zodiac Killer. Operating in California in the late 1960s, he sent numbers to the newspapers – a detail I couldn’t help but reproduce in The Echo Man. The definitive book on the Zodiac Killer is written by Robert Graysmith (Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Elusive Serial Killer) – a political cartoonist for the Chronicle who became obsessed with the case.
I would be remiss, speaking of true crime books, not to include I’ll be gone in the dark. Now made into a documentary for HBO, Michelle McNamara’s tale of her search for the Golden State Killer is an engrossing read. Tragically, she died before Joseph DeAngelo was arrested and convicted, but her tireless work is widely acknowledged to have been integral to the investigation and her arrest in 2018.
Now let’s move on to the psychology of serial killers – starting with the fathers of modern profiling: John Douglas and Robert Ressler. Ressler and Douglas both worked for the FBI and were instrumental in establishing the Behavioral Sciences Unit, as well as the Vi-CAP centralized computer database of homicide information. Their groundbreaking approach of interviewing known serial killers to find patterns in their thinking and methods, led to interviews with Charles Manson, Ed Kemper, and Sam’s son David Berkowitz, among others.
Both wrote many revealing books, but spirit hunter and The one who fights monsters are a great starting point.
Colin Wilson Serial killers: a study on the psychology of violence is another in-depth look at murderers and their psychology: from Jack the Ripper to the present day.
Across the Atlantic, the books of Paul Britton offer a similar understanding. A forensic psychologist, he consulted over a hundred cases with the police, including the kidnapping of Jamie Bulger, the murder of Rachel Nickell, and Fred and Rose West. The puzzle man provides a fascinating insight into the minds of delinquents across the pond.
Dr. David Wilson is a professor of criminology and has spent most of his professional life working with violent men, most of them in prison. His observations in My life with murderersin particular his examination of the sociological causes of serial murders offer an interesting juxtaposition from the perspectives of law enforcement and psychologists.
And finally, if you want to understand the mind of a psychopath, read a book written by one. James Fallon is a neuroscientist and was examining the brain scans of psychopathic murderers when he discovered his own – taken as a control subject for a study of Alzheimer’s patients – shared many of the same abnormalities. What followed was a fascinating dive into his own psychopathy. His personal journey and accomplishments are captured in The psychopath inside.
There are many other books out there, but these have been my favorites over the past few years while researching. The Echo Man – an indulgence of my interest in the most violent men in history.
Breton, Paul. (1997). The Puzzle Man. London: Corgi Books.
Douglas, J. and Olshaker, M. (1995). Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s elite serial crime unit. London: Arrow Books.
Fallon, James. (2014). The Psychopath Within: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. New York: Penguin.
Graysmith, Robert. (2007). Zodiac: The shocking true story of America’s most elusive serial killer. London: Titan Books.
Masters, Brian. (1993). Jeffrey Dahmer’s sanctuary. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
McNamara, M. (2018). I will be gone in the dark. London: Faber and Faber.
Michaud, Steven G. and Aynesworth, Hugh. (2019). Ted Bundy: Conversations with a killer. London: Mirror Books.
Ressler, R and Shachtman, T. (1992). One who fights monsters. New York: Saint-Martin Press
Wilson, Colin and Seaman, Donald. (2007). Serial killers: a study in the psychology of violence. London: Virgin Books.
Wilson, David. (2019). My life with murderers. London: Sphere.