Serial Killers in Fact and Fiction

Five of the best serial killer thrillers – Margaret Murphy, “write” arm of Ashley Dyer

Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs must surely take pole position on any list of serial killer novels. Harris researched the background meticulously, including talking to FBI agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas, originators of the first centralized database of serial offenders. Harris has a creative genius for reinventing his research so that everything—from forensic psychology to autopsy scenes—illuminates and invigorates the fiction, never weighing it down. Add two fascinating characters—opposites in type—pitted against each other in a thrilling, intelligent cat-and-mouse game, and you have fiction gold. Starling may be only a trainee, but she is observant, clever, sharp, and ambitious. Young, certainly, but no ingenue—ultimately, she proves a match for all the men around her who would patronize and objectify her—including Hannibal Lecter.

Mo Hayder’s debut, Birdman, was launched with great fanfare at the turn of the new millennium— and is a rare example of the quality of the writing exceeding the marketing hype. The serial killer investigation begins with the discovery of a woman’s body near London’s Millennium Dome. She died horribly, but with a stomach-churning twist that has become a hallmark of Hayder’s work, the postmortem reveals that the victim’s heart has been removed, and a live bird sewn into the cavity.   My first reading of Birdman made me tingle with excitement and has the power to thrill even on a second or third reading.

The Killing Kind, by John Connolly, opens with a stunning piece of prose; spine-tingling, carefully crafted and powerfully realised. The ‘honeycomb world’ of the living and the dead, of past and present, exist side by side, the one impinging on the other. This shadow-play between life and death acts as a leitmotif throughout the novel. The serial killer’s method is particularly creepy (arachnophobes, skip the next bit)—he traps his victims and releases thousands of tiny brown recluse spiders, whose bites cause tissue necrosis, resulting in agonizing death. The novel is graphic and visceral, but it is also philosophical, reflecting on crime and justice, and the nature of evil.

Dexter Morgan is a forensic scientist with a dark half. By day, a mild-mannered forensics expert, specialising in blood spatter analysis; by night, a vigilante serial killer. Jeff Lindsay’s series polarizes opinion, and for years, I resisted—I mean, seriously—a murdering psychopath with a social conscience? But the charm, wit, and style of Darkly Dreaming Dexter is seductive—if you haven’t already, I urge you to try it.

Jeffery Deaver is the acknowledged king of the forensic thriller and The Bone Collector, first in the hugely successful Lincoln Rhyme series, has it all: a quadriplegic forensic expert, a rookie patrol cop hooked into an investigation, and a serial killer who takes bones as trophies, then leaves them as calling cards near to the next victim. Fun fact: Deaver’s forensic genius, Rhyme, is credited with having coined the phrase “walk the grid”, now used by real life CSIs at crime scenes.


Helen Pepper, Ashley Dyer forensic consultant, on true crime serial killer texts

I have selected some of my favourite true crime books; they’re British serial killers, so they may be new to you. As it happens, in a macabre version of Six Degrees of Separation, I can establish a personal link to four of the five cases . . .

For five years from the mid-seventies to early eighties, I lived in the heart of the “Ripper Triangle”—hunting ground of a serial killer dubbed the “Yorkshire Ripper”. As a teen at that time, if you wanted to go out, you had to be dropped off and picked up, or you simply couldn’t go. I chafed against this affront to my personal freedom, until the body of 18-year-old Helen Ritka was found in January 1978. She was in my sister’s class at college.

The Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, was finally caught in January 1981. Living through those years probably influenced my choice of career; it certainly drew me to my first true crime book: The Yorkshire Ripper: The In-depth Study of a Mass Killer and His Methods by Roger Cross. It provides a terrific insight into the case and the enormity of the investigation. An iconic photograph shows Sutcliffe, handcuffed to Detective Sergeant Des O’Boyle, to whom Sutcliffe confessed; Des also conducted all subsequent interviews with Sutcliffe. Later, as a young CSI, I was fortunate to work with Des, and I’ll admit I was star struck when I first met him!

Next up is 10 Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy. Kennedy gives a well written, coherent, and highly readable account of serial murderer John Reginald Halliday Christie, active from 1943 and 1953. Christie, who claimed to be a medic, subdued his eight victims using an apparatus connected to the gas supply, before sexually assaulting and strangling them. But in 1950, before Christie’s crimes came to light, Timothy Evans was tried and hanged for the murders of his wife and infant daughter who had an apartment in the same house. Christie was a key witness for the prosecution.

In 1999, as part of standard practice in the UK, Christie’s fingerprints were destroyed; it was my husband who fed the fingerprint form into the furnace. I’ve yet to forgive him for not slipping it into his pocket!

Beyond Belief by Emlyn Williams is part reportage and partly written from the imagined viewpoint of Moors Murderer, Ian Brady. He and his accomplice, Myra Hindley, abducted five children and tortured them to death, burying all but the final victim on the Yorkshire moors. Two bodies were recovered during the original investigation in 1965, and a further body was found in 1987 after Hindley agreed to revisit the moor. Keith Bennett, the fourth victim, has never been found. I recommend this book because Williams’s writing gives an authentic flavour of the culture and tone of the time. I’ve been privileged to work with a police officer who helped to search the moors as a young officer in the 1960s, then, as a senior detective in 1987 he ran the operation which ended in the recovery of victim John Kilbride’s body. (I’ve not named the detective here, because of work he is currently undertaking.)

The Cromwell Street Murders by John Bennett with Graham Gardner is the extraordinary story of sexual sadists Fred and Rose West, who murdered at least twelve people, including Fred’s first wife and two of their children. Fred was known to have made pornographic films and in 1994, while working on a project in London, I met with a small team of Gloucester Police detectives who had been tasked with trawling London Soho’s sex shops to try to find images of his victims.

Finally, Killing for Company is Brian Masters’s Gold Dagger-winning book on necrophiliac serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who was convicted of the murders and dismemberment of fifteen young men in his flat in Muswell Hill, London. No personal connection for me, here, but in my view this is one of the finest true crime books ever written. It explores in depth Nilsen’s background history, psychology, and key events in his life which may have shaped him, providing a chilling glimpse into the mind of a serial killer.

Ashley Dyer is the penname of novelist, Margaret Murphy, working in consultation with forensics expert, Helen Pepper. The Cutting Room is the second in the Carver & Lake series. Margaret Murphy wrote twelve novels under her own name, and as A.D. Garrett, before morphing into Ashley Dyer. The founder of Murder Squad, she is a former RLF Writing Fellow and past Chair of the Crime Writers Association. She has been shortlisted for the First Blood award and the CWA Dagger in the Library and is a CWA Short Story Dagger winner.

Helen Pepper is a Senior Lecturer in Policing. She has been an analyst, Forensic Scientist, CSI, Crime Scene Manager and police trainer, and has co-authored, and contributed to, professional policing texts. She was a long-serving CWA Non-Fiction Dagger judge, and Forensic Consultant on both the Vera and Shetland television series, among others.