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Old 03-27-2011, 10:57 AM   #1
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Serial Killers

I find that a lot of crime/mystery fiction revolves around the hunt for a serial killer. The more of these stories that flood the market the more you think you've read it all before; the only difference being that each succeeding author has to think of a more interesting (for interesting read macabre) way for the SK to bump of his/her victims.

That made me wonder: who started it all? Obviously,there have been actual historical SK's such as Sawney Bean (although the jury is out as to whether he did exist) and Jack the Ripper, but who wrote the first fictional account of a serial killer? I don't think Dr Jekyll falls into that catagory as he didn't kill enough people and the furthest I can think back is Agatha Christie's Ten Little 'you know what's' - the title later changed to a more acceptable, 'And Then There Were None'. Anyone got an earlier example?
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Old 03-27-2011, 11:26 AM   #2
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That is a good question. I googled and apparently this book, written in 1865, Book of Werewolves, is a study of werewolf mythology but touches on serial killings. I blame the current glut (as in the last 20 years) of serial killer novels on Silence of the Lambs.

http://www.amazon.com/Book-Werewolve.../dp/1605201138
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Old 03-27-2011, 12:06 PM   #3
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Did Christie write about serial killers? I think hers were multiple murderers. The serial killer as we think of him (a wacko who kills out of some psychosexual compunction) is a pretty modern development. I think it peaked with Lambs. I think Thomas Harris recognized it and decided to voluntarily jump the shark with "Hannibal"
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Old 03-27-2011, 12:11 PM   #4
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That is a good question. I googled and apparently this book, written in 1865, Book of Werewolves, is a study of werewolf mythology but touches on serial killings. I blame the current glut (as in the last 20 years) of serial killer novels on Silence of the Lambs.

http://www.amazon.com/Book-Werewolve.../dp/1605201138
As it so happens, I'm reading this one now, free download from Gutenberg I think. It mentions Elizabeth Bathory, who was supposed to have bathed in the blood of virgins to improve her complexion (I'll stick to Pear's soap!), and many other cases where people committed multi-murders, sometimes under the delusion that they were were-wolves or bears. It's a reasonable quick read.
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Old 03-27-2011, 12:31 PM   #5
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As it so happens, I'm reading this one now, free download from Gutenberg I think. It mentions Elizabeth Bathory, who was supposed to have bathed in the blood of virgins to improve her complexion (I'll stick to Pear's soap!), and many other cases where people committed multi-murders, sometimes under the delusion that they were were-wolves or bears. It's a reasonable quick read.

Indeed so it is. I was an idiot and didn't put the dash, so a title search in Gutenberg didn't pull it up. I did an author search after reading that you got it from there and bam.

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5324
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Old 03-27-2011, 12:51 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by covingtoncat73 View Post
That is a good question. I googled and apparently this book, written in 1865, Book of Werewolves, is a study of werewolf mythology but touches on serial killings. I blame the current glut (as in the last 20 years) of serial killer novels on Silence of the Lambs.

http://www.amazon.com/Book-Werewolve.../dp/1605201138
That's a good example. When I was in my early teens, I remember seeing woodcuts from an old pamplet about the crimes and torture/execution of a notorious "werewolf" -- I'm pretty sure it was Peter Stumpp, a German werewolf. I also read about Gilles Garnier, a French hermit executed for being a werewolf. The Stumpp pamphlet was a 1590 British translation of the German original. (Stumpp was executed in 1589, so I'm amazed that the British translation came out only a year later. That pamphlet was their equivalent of a CNN broadcast.) Those would count as nonfiction of course, but it shows how far back these accounts go. (And I'm sure they weren't entirely truthful, either. )

After poking the Internetz a while, the first fictional account I can find is the Bluebeard story by Charles Perrault (1697). I always thought that case was based on notorious serial killer Gilles de Rais (1404–1440), but it seems some experts disagree and say he may have been inspired by existing folklore. There might have been earlier examples. It's hard to say as books, pamphlets, etc. didn't always survive.

Later on, another early example is Sweeney Todd -- the original penny dreadful was published in 1846-1847. There is an expert who believed it was based on a real case, but most other experts dispute his findings.

Of course, this also depends on how you define a serial killer. Some experts believe only sexual murders should be called serial killings, while others use the term in a more general form. For example, some experts would not count rulers such as Vlad Tepes, but they would include Countess Elizabeth Bathory because of the sexual aspect of the murders. Other experts include anyone who commits more than two murders for "anger, thrill, financial gain, and attention seeking." So would you include fictional accounts of a historical fiend? Would you include mysteries where one person kills many people for financial gain or out of revenge? In that case, some of the Sherlock Holmes cases and some of the other Agatha Christie cases might count.


Under fictional serial killers, Wiki includes "Barabas the Jew" from Marlowe's play The Jew of Malta. Sheehsh! If we include him as a serial killer, then why not Shakespeare's Richard the Third? Or Middleton and Roweley's De Flores from the play The Changeling (even if he killed for financial gain and to have sex with Beatrice/Joanna, not necessarily in that order)? Heck, so would Medea in the play by Euripdes (431 BCE). Argh!

I give up!
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Old 03-27-2011, 01:09 PM   #7
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Did Christie write about serial killers? I think hers were multiple murderers. The serial killer as we think of him (a wacko who kills out of some psychosexual compunction) is a pretty modern development. I think it peaked with Lambs. I think Thomas Harris recognized it and decided to voluntarily jump the shark with "Hannibal"
I think the serial killer was we think of him came about because modern inventions made it possible for people to travel so much more easily. But even before modern times, I think there were many people who qualified as serial killers, even before people knew what to call them. Some were rulers, some worked for rulers, and some hid among other members of society.

In The Serial Killer Files, Harold Schechter argues that the FBI description of serial killers is too broad as it might include, for example, Billy the Kid or other Western outlaws. He classifies multiple homicide as serial, spree, and mass killings. But Peter Vronsky has different views, and you can preview his books here (http://www.serialkillerchronicles.com/).

Just to keep this discussion relevant to ebooks, you can find Harold Schechter's books on the Kindle and Nook!

And Peter Vronsky is also available on the Kindle and Nook.
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Old 03-27-2011, 01:54 PM   #8
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So many mysteries include multiple murderers, but I wouldn't call them serial killers. The first killing usually has a specific, understandable motive, and the subsequent killings tend to be to cover up the first crime. Plus the killer often employs different methods for each killing.

I think the term "serial killer" more properly refers to someone who kills a series of strangers (or acquaintances cultivated specifically to be killed) according to some pattern that makes sense to the killer.
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Old 03-27-2011, 05:55 PM   #9
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It's one of the few unadulterated Good vs. Evil scenarios in law enforcement, involving a criminal type generally considered intelligent, elusive and mysterious. Makes for an easy thriller without too much ambiguity to get in the way.

Stories about detectives tracking down people who write bad checks don't play out quite as thrillingly.
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Old 03-27-2011, 06:55 PM   #10
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Multiple murderers aren't necessarily classified as serial killers (e.g., murderers who kill their victims all at once), but those who kill sequentially and compulsively tend to be classified that way by the people who must deal with them professionally.

Even though they're not supposed to diagnose people they haven't interviewed and tested themselves, every clinical and forensic psychologist I've ever met ignores that rule in casual conversation. A psychologist I know in the UK is fond of insisting that Tony Blair has NPD.

I've even heard Bluebeard referred to as a fictional serial killer and sociopath, though that could be wrong if one is being stringent about the supposed time constraints, which few people are. Honeymoon killers are commonly referred to as serial killers despite the interval between killings being greater than a month.

Liu Peng Li, or Liu Pengli, is the earliest practicing serial killer I can think of, since his time of operation was about 156 B.C. I'm surprised no one has written a popular book about him yet (in English, at least). Some would argue he doesn't fit the profile because the killings weren't private and involved his soldiers (though they might have been accomplices). Still, he killed "for pleasure" prolifically and sequentially and was clearly a murderous sociopath.

From Wikipedia:

Quote:
According to the Chinese historian Sima Qian (司马迁), "twenty-nine years later, he was arrogant and cruel, and would go out on marauding expeditions with tens of slaves or young men who were in hiding from the law, murdering people and seizing their belongings for sheer sport. Confirmed victims exceeded 100, and these murders were known across the kingdom, so people were afraid of going out of their houses at night. Eventually the son of one of his victims accused him to the Emperor, and the officials of the court requested that Liu Pengli be executed; however, the emperor could not bear to have his own cousin killed, and Liu Pengli was made a commoner and banished to the county of Shangyong (上庸县), now Zhushan (竹山县), in Hubei Province (湖北省) of China. His sovereignty was abolished, and his land was reclaimed by Jing."
Gilles de Rais (1403-1440) is also considered a serial killer by most profilers and forensic psychologists I've read or spoken to (including the one I once dated). I happen to have a risk assessor for violent criminals in the family (yes, the kind who actually visits with them in padded cells) and can ask specific questions if anyone likes.

It occurs to me that certain criteria are being imposed in this thread for reasons of personal interest and that's fine. If I understand you, OP, you seem to be looking for early instances of criminal investigations involving serial killers. I'll try to think of examples later on and my apologies if I've steered you off-course.

Critteranne: You've mentioned some fun resources. I have fond memories of skimming Schechter in the nineties, when I was writing about female serial killers. Nearly all his books had one-word titles that could have been the names of bands.

Last edited by Prestidigitweeze; 03-27-2011 at 07:22 PM.
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Old 03-27-2011, 11:24 PM   #11
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The more of these stories that flood the market the more you think you've read it all before; the only difference being that each succeeding author has to think of a more interesting (for interesting read macabre) way for the SK to bump of his/her victims.
This is why I prefer to read True Crime. The truth is often stranger than fiction and there is no shortage of real life psychos.

Real life serial killers go way back, also. Maybe I will do a little research on the earliest docmented ones. I'm sure there were many more than we ever will know about back in the days before easy communication methods.
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Old 03-27-2011, 11:30 PM   #12
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This is why I prefer to read True Crime. The truth is often stranger than fiction and there is no shortage of real life psychos.

Real life serial killers go way back, also. Maybe I will do a little research on the earliest docmented ones. I'm sure there were many more than we ever will know about back in the days before easy communication methods.
Yep. Devil in the White City, for example, was much more entertaining than any fictional serial killer thriller. Killer of Little Shepherds was pretty good, too.
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Old 03-28-2011, 11:50 AM   #13
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So many mysteries include multiple murderers, but I wouldn't call them serial killers. The first killing usually has a specific, understandable motive, and the subsequent killings tend to be to cover up the first crime. Plus the killer often employs different methods for each killing.

I think the term "serial killer" more properly refers to someone who kills a series of strangers (or acquaintances cultivated specifically to be killed) according to some pattern that makes sense to the killer.
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Did Christie write about serial killers?
Agatha's The ABC Murders deals with both, actually -a specific motive and a series of acquaintances cultivated specifically to be killed.
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Old 03-28-2011, 11:54 AM   #14
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Cool Mumble mumble mumble........

Seems to me, nowadays, serial killer books/TV programmes are like "celebrity", "reality", and "talent" TV shows/articles................
The first few were a decent idea, then they got boring, then they got appalling................

Books do at least have the saving grace of the infinite imagination - thus more likelihood of either a new wrinkle, or brilliant execution, (oops, not) - well, you know what I mean.
[ If you don't, you've read too many serial killer books.]
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Old 03-28-2011, 11:49 PM   #15
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Critteranne: You've mentioned some fun resources. I have fond memories of skimming Schechter in the nineties, when I was writing about female serial killers. Nearly all his books had one-word titles that could have been the names of bands.
Vronsky has a rather thick book about female serial killers. There are some scary women out there!
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