In 1997, I went on the famous Jack the Ripper walk through the East End of London, visiting all the spots where he had committed his grizzly Victorian-era murders. The tour ended at the Ten Bells pub in Whitechapel, where two of ‘Jack’s’ victims – prostitutes Annie Chapman and Mary Kelly – were said to have regularly frequented.
Our guide on the night was Donald Rumbelow, one of dozens of writers who had theorised about who Jack the Ripper might have been. I remember I bought a copy of his book after the tour and devoured it in a hurry.
At the time and throughout my twenties, I had perhaps an unhealthy interest in these evil monsters, reading book after a book, utterly fascinated and repelled in equal measure.
I had and still do have a fascination with the darker side of human nature, particularly when the crimes are committed by seemingly ‘ordinary people’. But doesn’t everyone?
Recently, it was revealed that testing of DNA on a shawl that belonged to one of the Ripper’s victims – Catherine Eddowes – was a 100 per cent match for the sister of a Polish-born hairdresser called Aaron Kosminski, a suspect in almost any reputable book about the crimes. This, it seems has dealt a body blow to 120 plus years of speculation and intrigue and an industry of ‘Ripperologists‘ comprising amateur sleuths and published writers.
This re-ignited my interest in the subject of serial killers, which had already been stirred by a book I came across in Big W of all places.
I was intrigued by the cover and its title: “The Most Dangerous Animal of All – Searching for my father…and finding the Zodiac Killer.” by Gary L. Stewart.
I have not read it yet – I am still making my way through, of all things a comic novel by Howard Jacobson called “The Making of Henry – but it’s next on my reading list.
On the back cover it says tantalizingly:
An explosive, revelatory memoir of a man who discovers that his father is one of the most infamous and still-wanted serial killers in America.
Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer – who murdered seven or more people in Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s – was never caught. In another similarity, the Zodiac Killer also sent cryptic notes to the police, one in which he stated that man “is the most dangerous animal of all”.
There were numerous books written about the Zodiac killer and a very good 2007 film called “Zodiac” directed by David Fincher and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo.
If this Zodiac book is as convincing as the back cover claims, than that would be two famous serial killer mysteries solved. Never mind, countless others remain as does the question: who or what makes these monsters?
Here’s my list of six of the best books I’ve read about serial killers:
1. Written in Blood by Colin Wilson
This is actually a book about forensic science, but within its dense pages are countless tales of serial killers including Bela Kiss, Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) and Albert Fish to name just three plus insights into their psychological make-up and motives. Wilson, a prolific writer on crime, the occult, philosophy and countless other topics sadly passed away last year. “Will enthrall connoisseurs of violent crime”- is on the cover of my well-thumbed paperback edition.
2. The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
The most chilling and fascinating book every written about a serial killer. Ann Rule was a friend of the charming, well educated and good looking Ted Bundy, only later to discover to her huge shock and revulsion that he was a vicious serial killer.
3. Ten Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy
The story about one of the most infamous murderers in British history, John Christie, and the wrongful arrest and execution of his neighbour Timothy Evans. Made into a brilliant, hugely disturbing film starring the late Richard Attenborough as John Christie in 1971.
4. Killing for Company by Brian Masters
Noted crime writer Brian Masters tell the story of Londoner Dennis Nilsen, who brutally murdered 15 men in the late 1970s and early 1980s, kept them as companions and then later buried them under his floor or dismembered them and flushed them down the plumbing. What haunted me was that he had lived close to a cousin of mine in Muswell Hill, North London.
5. Lust Killer by Ann Rule
The story of Jerry Brudos, a married man with children in Portland, Oregon, who kidnapped, murdered and violated women in the workshop of his family home in 1968 and 1969. His wife had no clue.
6. A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger
Written by the author of “The Perfect Storm” it tells the story of Albert DeSalvo who by an incredible coincidence worked on a construction job in Junger’s family home in the early 1960s and who later confessed to being the “The Boston Strangler”. Junger theorises that DeSalvo was also the murderer of an elderly woman in the neighbourhood, not a black man called Roy Smith, who was jailed for life for the crime. Deeply disturbing, the book has on its front cover a photo of DeSalvo posing in a family photo with the author as an infant.