Rise of the serial killer – with a graph!

The recent-ish discussion about gory autopsy scenes at Mrs Peabody Investigates got me thinking about other current trends in crime writing. The early history of the autopsy scene seemed to be clear (see Rhian’s comments, mainly). But what about serial killers? Are they as old as the genre or a relatively recent development? I’m talking here about what the modern reader would recognise as a serial killer, as opposed to merely a murderer who kills more than once.

Reading Camilla Lackberg’s The Stranger (aka The Gallows Bird, 2011), I was struck by how bizarre the plot was. Transpose the murders to real life and I wouldn’t believe in them. Without giving anything away, the killings would have been difficult to organise, the ‘signature’ was mawkish, and I just can’t believe poetic justice is ever a motive in reality. But in the context of literary serial killers, the murders and their motive don’t seem that weird. The motivations and actions of fictional killers get odder and odder.

I don’t read true crime, so everything I ‘know’ about serial killers (inability to relate to people, lack of emotion, moving from hurting animals to hurting people, disorganised vs organised, souvenir-collection) comes from works of fiction, and principally the books of Thomas Harris. I would have put him down as the first writer to explore this territory, and he surely was the great populariser, but then I read A Demon in my View (Ruth Rendell, 1976) – and almost all these features are in there except for the name ‘serial killer’. The killer in A Kiss Before Dying (1953) also has the classic serial killer back-story without the label.

Are there other, earlier candidates for the serial killer in fiction? I’m sure there must be – let me know.

One question I can have a stab at answering: When did writers begin using the actual term ‘serial killer’?

Obviously, usage changes over time. The killers in The ABC Murders (Agatha Christie, 1936) and The Tiger in the Smoke (Margery Allingham, 1952) are referred to as ‘maniacs’. By Ruth Rendell, we get the more clinical ‘psychopath’ (dating from 1885, according to the OED). The earliest mention of ‘serial killer’ cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the New York Times in 1981 (although ‘serial murderer’ dates from 1961).

This is backed up by my new favourite web app. I don’t pretend to understand the science, and I obviously can’t see the datasets, but Google Books N Grams offers a way to map the development of words and phrases over time. It’s fun for swear words (and I suspect that accounts for 90% of its usage) but I thought I’d feed in ‘serial killer’ to see what would happen.

The term ‘serial killer’ rapidly escaped the realms of psychology and criminology in the early 80s, and as we see here it quickly gained ground on ‘mass murderer’, ‘maniac’ and ‘psychopath’. Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon was 1981, so he was quick off the mark, although he only uses the term once.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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8 Responses to Rise of the serial killer – with a graph!

  1. westwoodrich says:

    Barbara Fister on the Crime and Mystery Fiction FriendFeed has added some useful info: ‘The first use of the phrase “serial killer” in the press so far as I can tell is 1981. The FBI was making some whacky claims about how many of them there were, claims they later retracted. (Oops! we counted all the homicides about which circumstances were unknown. Sorry!) Philip Jenkins has some interesting things to say about this in his book Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide.


  2. Brilliant Rich! I think that sums it up re appearance of the term in fiction and I’d certainly lay it Thomas Harris’s door. Others quick to join as the 90s dawned were John Sandford (whose early novels in his ‘Prey’ series featured serial killers); David Lindsey (not exclusively SKs); Ridley Pearson (again, not exclusively SKs).

    And many thanks for the mention above.


  3. Maxine says:

    That graph really is fascinating.


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