Serial killers are disproportionately common in fiction (well, we hope, anyway). There’s just something darkly fascinating about human beings who so completely slip the bonds of civilization—aand that fascination occasionally inspires an author to come up with a killer so deranged, the violence becomes something like poetry. The list of bizarre serial killers is long (and getting longer all the time), but the eight on this list are among the most memorable, hitting a sweet spot between terrifying and imaginative.
Man Overboard, by J.A. Jance
Jance’s 12th Ali Reynold’s novel offers up one of the most interesting serial killers we come across lately—a man named Owen Hansen, who refers to himself as Odin. Odin is obsessed with suicide because his father killed himself, and is now using hacked patient data to identify psychically fragile children of suicides in order to torment them into also killing themselves. It’s a fascinating concept that raises questions about culpability and the real definition of “murder”—a “ripped from the headlines” story before the headlines were written.
The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie
Christie is the master of whodunnits, but she also had a sharply twisted imagination when it came to the modus operandi of her killers. In this classic Hercule Poirot adventure, the killer is working his way through the alphabet; his first victims are Alice Ascher, Betty Barnard, and Sir Carmichael Clarke. At each crime scene he leaves a railway guide, known at the time as an “ABC.” The twist, of course, is that the serial killer is only working his way through the alphabet to obscure his real purpose—which you’ll have to read the book to discover.
The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl
Serial killers basing their murders on classic poetry? Yes, please. Pearl tells a story set in Boston in 1865, where a group of Dante scholars find themselves chasing a serial killer who is replicating the tortures found in Dante’s Inferno. That means the murders are gruesomely beautiful, in a way, and the story twists itself into a knot before Pearl cleverly begins to unwind it in ways both unexpected and entertaining.
Messiah, by Boris Starling
(Spoilers on this one, inevitably.) Serial killers and religion often mix well (there’s some food for thought), but Starling’s ingenious killer is initially merely perplexing for Redfern Metcalfe, a Scotland Yard investigator who looking into the murders of two men who are left with their tongues cut out, replaced by silver spoons. Slowly, it emerges the killer is murdering men in ways that match the deaths of the twelve Apostles of Christ, which is a pretty wonderfully twisted concept, and one that’s subtle enough to be truly surprising when the pieces all come together.
Hannibal, by Thomas Harris
You can’t discuss bizarre serial killers without mentioning Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant, cultured man who not only eats his victims, but cooks them with panache and skill, creating exquisite meals he frequently serves to his colleagues—or even the detectives investigating his crimes. Lecter has become a fixture of pop culture—try having a conversation about serial killers without mentioning his name—which can make us lose sight of just how breathtakingly strange his murder process is; put simply, it isn’t easy to turn a human corpse into a delicious meal. When it comes to Lecter, the devil is certainly in the details.
The Steel Kiss, by Jeffery Deaver
Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series has plenty of candidates for clever and bizarre serial killers, but The Steel Kiss is one of the best and strangest, a man who kills his victims by subverting the technology we’ve all come to rely on for our daily lives. Elevators, escalators, microwave ovens—he’s a psychopath whose weapon of choice is the increasingly connected “internet of things” that has found its way into just about everything. Take a moment and imagine how many things in the room you’re in right now could kill you if they were controlled by a madman,
Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith
The revelation of the serial killer’s identity in Smith’s terrific thriller set in Stalinist Russia isn’t much of a spoiler; the focus is the difficulty of investigating a string of murders in a totalitarian state where there is officially no crime at all. The killer is eventually caught because his victims are murdered through the specific hunting techniques he used as a child with his brother—techniques he replicates specifically in hopes that his brother notices and recognizes them, adding an extra layer of dread to a story already suffused with it.
Kafka on the Shore, by Karuki Murakami
If Murakami is on a list of novels, you can rest assured it’s for an unusual reason (unless the list is “Unusual and Genius Books” or something). In Kafka on the Shore, Murakami offers up a serial killer—of cats. Johnnie Walker (named after and dressed like the iconic logo for the Scotch) murders cats, removes their hearts, and plans to make a flute from their souls. Or something; this is a novel you can’t take literally, and yet Walker’s series of cat murders is still chilling, and represents a strange and fascinating motivation for cruelty.