Murder has long been a man’s game in literature. Patrick Batemen, Joe Goldberg and Tom Ripley are just a few of the complicated killers who have appeared in novels (and later on screens). Readers take a front row seat to their sadistic minds and delight in their depravity as they kill with few consequences. Similarly, horror films, murder thrillers and shows like SVU abound, in which male killers stalk women who often function as disposable prey.
It’s a refreshing change when an author can turn the tables on this narrative. My debut novel Kill for Love “neatly flips the formula of the male serial killer on its bashed-in head” (Kirkus Reviews). The novel follows Tiffany, an L.A. sorority girl who seemingly has it all—but wants more. A frat party hookup gone wrong unleashes within her a lethal urge: the insatiable desire to kill attractive, young men.
The books on this list also feature women who kill, some for revenge and many just for the hell of it. From a professor to a fashion editor, the female serial killers in these books are both cruel and captivating. These women are dark, demented and don’t mind being labeled as “unlikeable.” The novels listed below are stand-alone works of fiction. Included with each title are film and TV recommendations, all featuring women creators at the helm.
A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers
This gastronomic, gut-busting novel can be devoured in a couple sittings or savored like a fine Chianti. The narrator, Dorothy Daniels, is a food critic with a sophisticated palate that extends beyond acceptable norms when she develops a literal taste for men. Dorothy regales readers with her history of killing and consuming her male suitors. She challenges you to throw away any gendered expectations on just how bad she can be: “You who call women the fairer sex, you may repress and deny all you want, but some of us were born with a howling void where our souls should sway.” The prose sings, and the mayhem is delicious.
Movie pairing: Julia Ducournau’s cannibal film Raw.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
In this fast-paced dark comedy, the story revolves around kind-hearted and responsible narrator Korede, who lives in Lagos and has found a perfect potential boyfriend in Tade, one of the doctors at the hospital where she works. There’s just one little problem: her beautiful and spoiled sister Ayoola has caught his eye too – and she has a habit of murdering her boyfriends. The story moves quickly and builds tension from page one when our narrator states, “Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him.” Braithwaite uses the character of Korede as the level-headed foil to her brash, killer sister in order to explore the bonds of sisterhood, the weight of the patriarchy, and the emotional burden of carrying family secrets.
Movie pairing: For another wicked tale about a woman reckoning with her murderous companion, check out Jennifer’s Body, directed by Karyn Kusama and written by Diablo Cody.
Maeve Fly by C.J. Leede
Looking for a serial killer story with strong horror vibes that can pair perfectly with Halloween season? This novel follows Maeve, who is a sweet-looking Disney princess by day, sadistic Sunset Strip serial killer by night. Leede infuses gothic horror into the narrative with a storyline involving Maeve’s once-starlet grandmother Talullah that has shades of old Hollywood films like Sunset Boulevard and Psycho. Maeve is all her own though, and she rightfully rails against the double standards often placed on misanthropic female characters in literature. “Men have always been permitted in fiction and in life to simply be what they are, no matter how dark or terrifying that might be. But with a woman, we expect an answer, a reason.” There is in fact a method to Maeve’s madness, and the story builds to a horrifically satisfying conclusion.
Movie pairing: Mary Harron’s cult classic film adaptation of American Psycho.
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo
If you’re looking for a story of revenge and feminist rage, this is your book. Dr. Scarlett Clark is an English professor at an East Coast university, and her extracurricular activities include uncovering men’s wrongs and making them pay. A female Dexter with a similarly strict code to her murders, her career and freedom are jeopardized when a colleague begins investigating the suspicious deaths that have plagued the college town since she took up tenure. The novel also features a second narrator, Carly, a new student who is learning to develop her own agency after leaving her abusive household behind. The story has plenty of twists and turns that will keep you guessing until the suspense-filled close.
Movie pairing: For more violent justice, make it a double feature with Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
#FashionVictim by Amina Akhtar
A fiendish blend of The Devil Wears Prada, Heathers and Scream Queens, Akhtar’s novel revels in satirizing the fashion industry and its impossible, Westernized beauty standards. The plot delivers pulpy, gory camp as narrator and fashion editor Anya St. Clair stops at nothing to rise amid the fashion ranks at the fictional New York magazine La Vie. She quickly sets her sights on her colleague Sarah, and Anya’s increasingly unhinged obsession with befriending her work rival sets in motion a succession of elaborately staged and hilarious murders that involve everything from spiked heels to poisoned tampons.
TV pairing: For another tale of feminine obsession and serial murder, buzz over to the series Swarm, co-created by Janine Nabers.
My Men by Victoria Kielland, translated by Damion Searls
This recently published Norwegian novel provides a fictionalized account of one of America’s most prolific serial killers, Belle Gunness. A Norwegian transplant who murdered her lovers, she found many of her victims through personal ads. The prose is meditative, poetic and almost hallucinatory as Belle reinvents herself with each passing decade and begins to lose her grip on reality. The narrative is framed by revealing newspaper ads and chapter titles that read like aphorisms. Belle’s surprising longing and romanticism (“Love was the only thing that could save her”) provides a fascinating contrast to the increasingly brutal dispassion of her murders.
Movie pairing: For another look at the humanity behind a real-life murderer, watch Patty Jenkins’ Monster.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Before Amy Dunne burned into our brains in Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s razor-sharp debut introduced readers to Camille Preaker, a reporter sent to unearth the dark crimes occurring in her hometown of Wind Gap. There is a serial killer afoot who is targeting and torturing little girls. Everyone in the town assumes the murderer is a man, but Camille senses the predator’s identity might not be so straightforward. While on the case, she is forced to stay with her previously estranged family and quickly settles into toxic old habits. Saying anything more might give away the book’s many shocks. Immersive and unsettling, you’ll feel Camille’s unease and the palpable danger lurking in the decaying town.
Movie pairing: For a similarly uneasy horror tale about the family ties that bind, watch Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.