The best books on psycho killers

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

The Books I Picked & Why

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. 

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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?  

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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?

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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.

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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.

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