With Halloween on the horizon and Dahmer—Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story on Netflix, spooky season has officially arrived and with it, our increasing desire for books that send shivers up our spines. There are plenty of novels that deal in the paranormal—ghosts and goblins and creepy creatures of the night—but if you’re truly in the mood for a good scare, what better than a book about the real-life phenomenon of serial killers?
Covering the spectrum from campy to psychologically horrific, we’ve compiled a list of the ten best (fictional) serial killer thrillers to pick up this spooky season.
A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham
Stacy Willingham’s beautifully written debut A Flicker in the Dark tackles serial killers from the perspective of one’s daughter. Chloe Davis was twelve when her father was arrested for the murders of six young girls in their small Louisiana town, put away by evidence Chloe herself turned over to the police. Since then, she’s struggled with all sorts of residual trauma, but has managed to scrape together a life for herself against all odds.
Twelve years later, her already unsteady foundation is shattered when another girl is found murdered in the same style as her father’s victims. And Chloe was the last person to see her alive. Is there a copycat killer on the loose, or was her father wrongly convicted all those years ago? Part atmospheric thriller, part psychological study, A Flicker in the Dark is a must-read. Pro-tip: an HBO Max series based on the book is currently in development, with Emma Stone attached for the main role.
Blood Sugar by Sascha Rothchild
A serial killer with a compassionate heart? As Sascha Rothchild’s fiction debut Blood Sugar
opens, Ruby is in police custody, recalling her first kill at the tender age of five. But the thing is that Ruby isn’t a sociopath! She’s an animal therapist and the people she’s killed all deserved it. Now, she’s been arrested for the murder of her husband, Jason, who, ironically, is one person she didn’t
kill. The cops have their doubts, however, because the thing is—people tend to end up dead when Ruby is around. Four, to be exact.
Ruby is a hilarious, charming narrator, who endears herself to readers the more time they spend with her. We dare you not to find yourself rooting for her by the end of this expertly-paced, twisty thriller.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
You’ve likely heard of the enormously popular Showtime show Dexter, but did you know it’s actually based on an eight-book series? If the show disappointed you in its last season (and you’re not alone if it did), remedy that by picking up these books and fall back into the world of serial killer Dexter Morgan.
A forensic blood spatter analyst for the Miami-Dade PD, he’s also a vigilant serial killer… who only murders Very Bad People. Is he a hero? A monster? Or something in-between? It’s hard to tell at times, but what’s not hard to do is to lose yourself completely in your enjoyment of this series.
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
Layne Fargo’s second book They Never Learn is a dual POV, fast-paced thriller that follows Scarlett Clark, an English Professor by day and serial killer by night, and college student Carly Schiller. Clark targets the worst of men—abusers, stalkers, scumbags who make women’s lives a living hell, and she’s gotten away with it for years by making their deaths look like suicide.
Schiller’s roommate was assaulted at a campus party and she has become obsessed with making the men responsible pay. The two women’s paths merge halfway into the book, and what comes next is shocking. This book is currently in development as a TV show, so fingers crossed we get to see Scarlett Clark on the small screen someday soon.
None Shall Sleep by Ellie Marney
Like many books published in 2020, Ellie Marney’s YA thriller None Shall Sleep never found the audience it deserved, and we’re here to remedy that. Set in 1982, the book follows two teenagers—one the survivor of a serial killer and the other a US Marshall candidate—who are recruited by the FBI to work on cold cases, but soon after asked to help with an active case—a serial killer who seems to exclusively murders teens.
Taking notes from Silence of the Lambs and Sadie, this dark twisty novel might be aimed at a younger audience, but it pulls no punches. Fans should be on the lookout for a sequel, coming in June 2023.
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Set during New York City’s Gilded Age, The Alienist (a term for ‘psychiatrist’ used in those days) is a historical thriller about a serial killer terrorizing the population of the city with his violent crimes.
As the book opens, Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt puts together a team consisting of a criminal psychiatrist and a newspaper reporter to investigate the murders. In the late 1800s, psychiatrists were viewed with skepticism by most of society, and because of this, in Carr’s book the team works in secret to hunt down the killer. A fascinating look at the profession of psychiatry in its infancy, and New York City in an era of great progress and upheaval, The Alienist is a must-read.
The Butcher and the Wren by Alaina Urquhart
If you’ve ever wanted to actually get inside the mind of a serial killer, look no further than this debut by Alaina Urquhart, co-host of the hugely popular true-crime podcast Morbid
Written from the perspectives of both a forensic pathologist and—you guessed it—a serial killer, the book has been described as perfect for fans of Dexter and Silence of the Lambs. Fun fact: Urquhart is not just a podcaster—she’s also an autopsy technician who has years of real-life experience working in the morgue, which brings authenticity to the descriptions in the book.
You by Caroline Kepnes
Several years ago, Netflix’s adaptation of You
took the world by storm, with Penn Badgley charming and terrifying viewers as serial killer Joe Goldberg. Those currently missing their weekly Goldberg fix absolutely must check out Kepnes’s thriller, on which the show is based. It’s as unsettling as its adaptation—maybe even more so, as readers find themselves firmly planted in the mind of Goldberg, privy to the twisted way he rationalizes his actions and obsessions.
Viewers of the Netflix series might also be interested to know that its plot has totally diverged from the three-book series, and Kepnes’ most recent installment, You Love Me, is entirely different than the third season of the show.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
A darkly humorous, twisted, entertaining tale that asks the question: how far would you go to protect your sibling? Korede knows that her sister is a killer. She’s been called by her sister, Ayoola, on three separate occasions to help clean up the crime scenes and help dispose of the bodies. Her sister has always claimed self-defense, claimed that the men involved had attacked her in some way, and Korede has pretended to believe her each time, even though she shows no remorse after the fact.
But, when Ayoola comes to Korede’s place of work and sets her sights on the one man Korede actually cares about, she’s forced to decide whether she’s willing to continue cleaning up her sister’s messes. Set in Nigeria, My Sister, The Serial Killer is an incredibly ambitious and impressive debut novel.
Killing Me by Michelle Gagnon
If you prefer your serial killer books with the same tongue-in-cheek vibes as Janet Evanovich’s books or the Finlay Donovan
series, then mark your calendars for Michelle Gangnon’s Killing Me
, which will hit shelves in May 2023.
The book opens shortly after our wise-cracking heroine, Amber, is kidnapped by the Pokemon Killer (not kidding, that’s really his name). After being rescued in the nick of time by a masked vigilante, Amber has to flee the life she’s built, because the cops are sniffing around and she has secrets of her own she’s hiding. Twisty, funny, and expertly plotted, Gagnon’s latest is a wild (and hilarious) ride, and we highly recommend picking it up next spring.
Honorable mentions: The Snowman by Jo Nesbø, The Bone Collector by Jeffery Deaver, The Naturals series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
Liz Lawson is the New York Times Bestselling author of The Agathas (with Kathleen Glasgow) and The Lucky Ones. You can find her on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter @lzlwsn.