The best books on psycho killers

Neal W. Fandek Author Of Peter Pike and the Revenge of the Romanovs
By Neal W. Fandek

Who am I?

I’m the author of the Peter Pike private eye series. Pike regularly tangles with psychos; you can’t have crime novels without them. Why? People love psychos. Psychos horrify and fascinate us. Do we wish we could be them? Maybe. The best psychos are outwardly lovable and charming and get whatever they want, making you laugh and shudder at the same time. Wish fulfillment? Fantasy? Subconscious longings? Again, maybe. I know such fiction lets you dive deeply into what’s now called transgressive territory without consequences. Does fiction get any better than that?


I wrote...

Peter Pike and the Revenge of the Romanovs

By Neal W. Fandek,

Book cover of Peter Pike and the Revenge of the Romanovs

What is my book about?

Fabergé eggs. So small, so perfect, so golden, so priceless. So deadly.

Private eye Peter Pike and his sleuth-librarian fiancée Greta learn just how deadly when the Third Imperial Egg turns up in the Mississippi River town of Punica, Mo. Now it’s up to Pike and Greta to find the egg before a modern-day Rasputin, the actor Robert DeXero, a psycho cop, a shady college president and the Russian mob turn their world inside out. As the body count builds, Pike and Greta must find a way to keep their love alive – and stay alive. Based on true events: the Third Imperial Egg was lost after the Russian Revolution and only surfaced ten years ago in a Midwestern junk shop.

The books I picked & why

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Pop. 1280

By Jim Thompson,

Book cover of Pop. 1280

Why this book?

A true American original and unheralded classic. The gold standard for nihilistic American crime fiction. This novel blew me away when I first read it in my 20s, and I wondered how anyone could write like this, burrow so deeply inside a psycho’s head, and still be so damn funny. It’s one of the bleakest American novels ever written, featuring yet another thoroughly amoral character. But not at all likable!

Psychopath sheriff Nick Corey knows nobody in tiny Potts County wants to follow the law so he does as little as possible, playing a dimwitted hick. He’s got problems with local pimps and the sheriff of an adjacent county. He’s got problems with his girlfriend’s husband. He’s got problems with his wife and her brother who are a little too close for brother and sister. With an election coming up, Nick needs to fix his problems and fast. How? Well -- it ain’t pretty. Nick becomes unhinged and believes he might be Jesus come back to Earth to dispense justice. Amen, Big Jim. 

Pop. 1280

By Jim Thompson,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Pop. 1280 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A classic crime novel from 'the best suspense writer going, bar none' New York Times

Nick Corey likes being the high sheriff of Potts County. But Nick has a few problems that he needs to deal with: like his loveless marriage, the pimps who torment him, the honest man who is running against him in the upcoming elections and the women who adore him.

And it turns out that Nick isn't anything like as amiable, easy-going or as slow as he seems. He's as sly, brutal and corrupt as they come.


The Talented Mr. Ripley

By Patricia Highsmith,

Book cover of The Talented Mr. Ripley

Why this book?

Another novel that redefined crime fiction for me in my 20s. People now know Tom Ripley through Matt Damon’s character, sure, but that’s not really Ripley. He’s slipperier, more charming, asexual, and utterly amoral. There’s very little mystery here; the only mystery is just how far Ripley will go to get what he wants. How many people will he kill? And why on earth are we rooting for him? This novel showed me how a talented author can manipulate the reader's emotions to root for the bad guy. Only in the past decade or so have we begun to understand Highsmith: angry, alcoholic, lesbian at a time when lesbianism was taboo, charming, manipulative. Does art imitate life? Or vice-versa?  

The Talented Mr. Ripley

By Patricia Highsmith,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Talented Mr. Ripley as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It's here, in the first volume of Patricia Highsmith's five-book Ripley series, that we are introduced to the suave Tom Ripley, a young striver seeking to leave behind his past as an orphan bullied for being a "sissy." Newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan, Ripley meets a wealthy industrialist who hires him to bring his playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf, back from gallivanting in Italy. Soon Ripley's fascination with Dickie's debonair lifestyle turns obsessive as he finds himself enraged by Dickie's ambivalent affections for Marge, a charming American dilettante, and Ripley begins a deadly game. "Sinister and strangely alluring"…


Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go

By George P. Pelecanos,

Book cover of Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go

Why this book?

Pelecanos is the worst. Pelecanos is a bum. I hate George Pelecanos. Every time I read one of his novels I get depressed because I will never be as good as him. More modern existential hardcore PI fiction, the third novel in a triology set in DC, this one too blew me away with its vision of DC, which I had just quit for Philadelphia. But it’s not the DC you and I know of marble and monuments, posturing politicians and bright ties, bright young people, and great eateries. Shoegum Nick Stefanos prowls some very mean DC streets and alleys and slimy creeks while battling his own nature. He’s a barkeep, a drunk, a f**up. This novel showed me that thoroughly entertaining nihilistic crime fiction is alive and well. Have I mentioned I hate Pelecanos?

Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go

By George P. Pelecanos,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'You already been a punk. Least you can do is go out like a man.' Then a dull popping sound and a quiet splash. That's how Nick Stefanos gets drawn into the murder of Calvin Jeter. An investigation that takes him through the roughest part of the nation's capital and the blackest parts of the human soul. Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go is the third volume in the Nick Stefanos series - which establishes George P. Pelecanos as the rightful heir to the noir tradition of James Cain, David Goodis and Jim Thompson.


In Broad Daylight: A murder in Skidmore, Missouri

By Harry N. MacLean,

Book cover of In Broad Daylight: A murder in Skidmore, Missouri

Why this book?

This isn't a novel but a true crime narrative, a depiction of a man named Ken McElroy gunned down on the main street of a small Missouri town in, well, broad daylight. No witnesses. No suspects. Well, the whole town, the whole county, are suspects. This guy raped very young girls then got them to marry him, shot people, stole cattle and equipment, burned down houses. This book was a jolt to me because my wife is from that area, an area I, a man who's spent most of my life in urban areas, had always thought bucolic, filled with amiable, honest, peaceful people. I started looking at the natives in a different light after this. And, not to freak anybody out here, chances are pretty good there’s been a terrible crime, if you’re lucky an unsolved one, committed not very far at all from where you are right now.

In Broad Daylight: A murder in Skidmore, Missouri

By Harry N. MacLean,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Broad Daylight as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ken Rex McElroy was an illiterate hog farmer who lived on the outskirts of a small town in Northwest Missouri. For over twenty years he raped, robbed and burned almost at will. Cops were scared to arrest him, prosecutors were scared to prosecute him, judges were scared to judge him, and juries were scared to convict him. Over the years, Skidmore and many other small communities became convinced that the law was incapable of protecting them from McElroy. They watched in awe as he walked away from one crime after another. Ken McElroy was shot to death on the main…


Brighton Rock

By Graham Greene,

Book cover of Brighton Rock

Why this book?

I’d been reading Greene for a few years, his light entertainments (Travels with my Aunt), morality plays (The Power and the Glory), and thrillers, but this was the first Greene novel I read that weaved threads together I previously thought impossible, viz., faith and Catholicism, murder, sex, sociopaths, good bloody action, and a convincing backdrop in Brighton itself. The protagonist here is a vicious teen named Pinkie (yes, his sexuality is conflicted) who’s attracted to and utterly spooked by normal human connection, who also tries to be a good Catholic while he kills, who’s tracked down by a female PI at a time when there were very few of them and… how the heck did Graham do that?

I’m still amazed that one character can be portrayed in such an ugly light and still be attractive. Ish. It’s hard to root for Pinkie, but impossible not to feel for him. I read this first, before “A Gun for Sale,” which is kind of a prequel, but find this novel far more engaging. Both “Brighton Rock” and ‘A Gun for Sale,” feature clever, likable (ish), murderous thugs. And here you thought clever, likable, murderous criminals were just an American thing.

Brighton Rock

By Graham Greene,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Brighton Rock as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Pinkie Brown, a neurotic teenage gangster wielding a razor blade and a bottle of sulfuric acid, commits a brutal murder - but it does not go unnoticed. Rose, a naive young waitress at a rundown cafe, has the unwitting power to destroy his crucial alibi, and Ida Arnold, a woman bursting with easy certainties about what is right and wrong, has made it her mission to bring about justice and redemption.

Set among the seaside amusements and dilapidated boarding houses of Brighton's pre-war underworld, Brighton Rock by Graham Greene is both a gritty thriller and a study of a soul…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in psychopathy, private investigators, and murder?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about psychopathy, private investigators, and murder.

Psychopathy Explore 39 books about psychopathy
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Murder Explore 496 books about murder

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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