“Write what you know,” they say. Which at first glance is good advice. But what if you’re writing about murder? What if, like me, your book was about the most depraved killers the world has ever seen? Then, just maybe, you write what you can research.
my new novel the echoman, revolves around a serial killer who draws inspiration from notorious killers of the past, the ultimate copycat killer. But imitation is not enough: he is ready to complete his own masterpiece. And it will be scarier than anything that has happened before.
Right now there are over 100,000 true crime books listed on Amazon. The choice is overwhelming. I can’t claim to have read even a fraction of them, but I know from experience that some are incredible. when I wrote The Echo Man I’ve waded through over two dozen serial killer biographies 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 sit through these with a notebook.
So, here are my favorites.
Let’s start with the serial killers. Since my fictional killer, The Echo Man, copies real killers, it was important to me to get the facts right. And not just the small details, but the psychology of why he killed and how.
There’s no way I would write about real serial killers without including Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. Probably the most notorious and for me the most fascinating. These were men who, at first glance, had everything for themselves, but could not suppress their deepest, most depraved desires.
There are hundreds of books, thousands even, about Ted Bundy. But my favorite has to be Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Murderer by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth. The authors were journalists who were given unprecedented access to Bundy in the years leading up to his execution. Their interviews, transcribed verbatim in this book, provide a unique insight into the workings of Bundy’s mind. (The book, The only living witnessalso based on these interviews.)
While the above provides a timeline of Bundy’s state of mind, Brian Masters’ The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer, 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 had a severed head in his refrigerator and two more in the freezer when he was arrested in 1991.
A still unknown serial killer is the Zodiac Killer. While active in California in the late 1960s, he sent ciphers to newspapers – a detail I couldn’t resist imitating The Echo Man. The definitive book on the Zodiac Killer was written by Robert Graysmith (Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of America’s Elusive Serial Killer) – a political cartoonist for the Chronicle who became obsessed with the case.
I would be remiss when discussing true crime books not to include them I will be gone in the dark. Michelle McNamara’s account of her search for the Golden State Killer, now made into a documentary for HBO, is compelling reading. Tragically, she died before Joseph DeAngelo was caught and sentenced, but it’s widely acknowledged that her tireless work was an integral part of the investigation and his arrest in 2018.
Now for the psychology of serial killers – starting with the fathers of modern profiling: John Douglas and Robert Ressler. Both Ressler and Douglas worked for the FBI and were instrumental in establishing the Behavioral Science Unit and the centralized computer database Vi-CAP of homicide information. Her revolutionary approach to interviewing known serial killers to find trends in their thinking and methods led to interviews with, among others, Charles Manson, Ed Kemper and Sam’s son, David Berkowitz.
Both have written many eye-opening books, however mind hunter and Who fights monsters are a good start.
Colin Wilsons The Serial Killers: A Study in the Psychology of Violence is another in-depth look at killers and their psychology: from Jack the Ripper to the present day.
Across the Atlantic, Paul Britton’s books offer a similar understanding. A forensic psychologist, he has advised police on over a hundred cases, including the kidnapping of Jamie Bulger, the murder of Rachel Nickell, and Fred and Rose West. The puzzle man offers fascinating insight into the minds of the perpetrators from 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 killings represent an interesting juxtaposition to the views of law enforcement agencies and psychologists.
Finally, if you want to understand the mind of a psychopath, read a book written by one. James Fallon is a neuroscientist reviewing brain scans of psychopathic killers when he discovered his own – used as a control for a study of Alzheimer’s patients – had many of the same abnormalities. What followed was a fascinating immersion into his own psychopathy. His personal journey and insights are recorded in it The psychopath inside.
There are many more books out there, but these have been my favorites during my research over the past few years The Echo Man – an indulgence in my interest in the most violent men in history.
Briton, 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 to the Dark Side of the Brain. New York: Penguin.
Grauschmied, Robert. (2007). Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of America’s Elusive Serial Killer. London: Titan Books.
Master, Brian. (1993). The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer. 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 Murderer. London: Mirror Books.
Ressler, R. and Shachtman, T. (1992). Who fights monsters. New York: St Martin’s Press
Wilson, Colin and Seaman, Donald. (2007). The Serial Killers: A Study in the Psychology of Violence. London: Virgin Books.
Wilson, David. (2019). My life with murderers London: Sphere.