The best books with narrators that may or may not be psychopaths

The Books I Picked & Why

The Cocktail Waitress

By James M. Cain

Book cover of The Cocktail Waitress

Why this book?

The Cocktail Waitress is the last work of total master James M. Cain, posthumously published in 2014. I started this on a hike and did not stop listening until it was done, netting me quite a bit of cardio. This firsthand explanation of a tabloid murder scandal, as told by its prime suspect, is often hilarious, surprisingly feminist, and darkly sinister. As the titular waitress innocently recalls meeting and marrying a much older millionaire and his baffling demise soon after, it’s clear she’s lying through her teeth. But deducing how and why is the fun of the book. Still, the ending is a gut punch. My book hangover was a solid 72 hours (could’ve been the hike though). 

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Alias Grace

By Margaret Atwood

Book cover of Alias Grace

Why this book?

I read this book two weeks ago and have not slept since, ruminating over the true-crime case that is the heart of the mystery. In 1840s Canada, two servants killed their employers and fled wearing their clothes. The maid, Grace, claims she can’t remember the day of the murder and was essentially kidnapped, and in explaining her life story basically mentally obliterates not just the young doctor working on her case but you, dear reader, as well. Is she a manipulative psychopath or an innocent victim, or is something otherworldly at work? Please read it and tell me. There needs to be a hotline for people who have just finished this book to call and scream their theories. 

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By Tiffany D. Jackson

Book cover of Grown

Why this book?

This is a bit of a cheat as I never questioned if the narrator of Grown is a psychopath–a murderer perhaps, and a wildly sympathetic one if so—but her “love interest” and abuser could qualify. As you watch a mega-famous musician entrap a teenaged, aspiring singer, it truly gets under your skin how closely his grooming mirrors common romance tropes. And once he’s killed, the plot ignites into an escalating series of twists that pushes the “unreliable narrator” device to its most mind-bending. Did Enchanted kill her abuser? Are we sort of glad? Mercifully, Grown leaves no loose ends, it wraps up everything in a truly satisfying package.

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Notes on a Scandal

By Zoe Heller

Book cover of Notes on a Scandal

Why this book?

I own this book in multiple formats and re-visit it frequently, because reading it is like taking a writing class; the subtlety of the mask-off moments of its troubled narrator are so deftly drawn. And she’s so truly terrifying because she believes she’s done nothing wrong! A retired teacher drafts out a manuscript about how her beautiful and disgraced colleague sexually preyed on a student at their school while living with her before the trial. The teacher-student scandal is not for the squeamish, and the dynamic between the two teachers is so harrowing this could legitimately be shelved as horror. 

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Manson in His Own Words

By Charles Manson

Book cover of Manson in His Own Words

Why this book?

I’m fascinated by the Manson family; my big bad in my book is essentially doing a Charlie impression, so I’ve read a lot about America’s Boogeyman. This autobiography stands out from the crowd because of its absolutely bonkers voice. Every trigger warning in the world applies, but there are two worthwhile aspects to this lurid tale: one, how much institutional violence created Manson, who spent his adolescence and young adult life in the penal system (when they released him at 32 he begged to stay in jail.) And two, how the charismatic “family” could easily pass for some carefree Instagram influencers these days.  

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