Books about murder are a dime a dozen. Every crime thriller (it feels like) revolves around the pursuit of a murderous fiend. But comparatively few books put at their center the murderer themselves. We don’t often get even a glimpse into the why’s and how’s of characters who are (or feel) compelled to take another person’s life. Perhaps that’s because it makes us uncomfortable, perhaps because it’s impossible to imagine… but a few authors have given it a go. Here’s my round-up of books with killer protagonists.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
In Alias Grace, beloved Canadian author Margaret Atwood fictionalises the story of the real life killer protagonist Grace Marks. She and another servant in the same household, James McDermott, were tried and convicted of the 1843 murders of the householder Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper. McDermott was sentenced to death and hanged, while Marks’s death sentence was commuted. Atwood’s version of the story is styled as a series of conversations Grace has with a psychiatrist, while she works out her sentence as a domestic servant in the Governor’s home. She wasn’t crazy enough to remain in the Asylum, where they first took her to assess her apparent amnesia about the events of her crime, but she’s clearly got a few loose in the top paddock. Read my full review of Alias Grace.
Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and Punishment follows the story of ex-student Rodin Raskolnikov, living on a shoestring in 19th century St Petersburg. He formulates a plan to stop his sister marrying a rich man whom she does not love in order to support the family… by killing a crotchety old pawn-broker and steal her cash. (Let’s not interrogate the logic of killer protagonists too closely.) It’s bizarre to read a novel about a literal axe-murderer and find him totally relatable, but that’s exactly what you get with this Russian classic. Raskolnikov comes THIS close to actually getting away with it, but he trips over his own neuroses and falls right on his face. Read my full review of Crime And Punishment here.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Few killer protagonists are as deeply depraved as the titular character in Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho. At first, Patrick Bateman mentions his private obsession with sexualised violence only briefly, with nonchalance. Blink and you’ll miss it. Gradually, he begins acting on his fantasies, until he’s [redacted] women’s [redacted], and musing on the patterns that the splattered fat of their [redacted] make on the curtains. If you have a trigger, it’s almost certain to be pulled by Bateman’s narration of his heinous crimes, but personally, for the most part, I found his infamous violence almost comedic. It was just so incredibly graphic. Laugh or you’ll cry! Read my full review of American Psycho here.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Here’s another fictionalised account of a real-life woman’s crimes. Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman ever to be executed in Iceland, after she was found guilty of the brutal murder of two men (including her former master). She is the killer protagonist of Burial Rites, which focuses on the time she spent on an isolated farm awaiting the execution of her sentence. In Kent’s story, she befriends a priest, who becomes her spiritual adviser, and gradually the family she is staying with warms to her, despite her murderous past. Is there more to Agnes’s story than the transcripts of the trial would have us all believe?
Perfume by Patrick Süskind
This classic literary crime novel has one of those killer protagonists who will linger in your waking mind, and haunt your nightmares while you sleep. Perfume is the story of what happens when a unique and peculiar talent becomes an obsession, and indulging that obsession leads to murder. A young boy is born with a gift for smell; his nose leads him out of the slums of 18th century France to an apprenticeship at a parfumerie. But when he catches a whiff of the most exquisite scent he has ever encountered – that of a beautiful young virginal woman – he is driven mad with desire. You can guess the rest…
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange, the novella, was published in 1962, but reached peak saturation after the Kubrick film adaptation was released in 1971. Alex, the hardened juvenile delinquent at the heart of the story, has become the prototype for all disaffected killer protagonists in the decades since. For some reason reading about Alex’s violence is a lot more confronting than seeing it on the screen. Even though Burgess cloaks it in his nonsense language (that he calls Nasdat), it’s sickening on the page. Alex steals, rapes, beats innocent people to within an inch of their lives, and eventually takes a life. He is caught, and punished (and how!), but his story is only just beginning. Read my full review of A Clockwork Orange here.
True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
Ned Kelly isn’t just a killer protagonist in a Peter Carey novel, he’s perhaps one of the most iconic killer protagonists in white Australian folklore. He was a bushranger, a thief and a murderer who captured the working class’s imagination with his alleged Robin Hood ethos. In True History Of The Kelly Gang, Carey writes an imagined memoir for Kelly, accounting for how he became the most infamous criminal in Australia’s history. The story stretches from his birth to his induction into a life of crime, his half-hearted attempts to reform, and all the way to his final stand-off with authorities in the town of Glenrowan. He dies a “hero” to the poor, but the rich believe it to be good riddance to bad rubbish, and the debate over Ned Kelly’s role in our national history has been debated ferociously ever since. Read my full review of True History of The Kelly Gang here.
Under The Dome by Stephen King
Okay, fine, Under The Dome has a huge cast of characters and it’s impossible to nail down one as the center of the story… but there’s a killer in the town that finds itself trapped under a barely-permeable dome, and damn if he doesn’t have main character energy. James “Junior” Rennie is a small-town youth who suffers from frequent migraines and has a penchant for killing women who annoy him. Not only that, but he hangs out with their corpses afterwards. He finds them soothing, somehow. It’s really only a subplot in King’s epic story of a town trapped in a pressure cooker, but it’s the first strand that comes to mind whenever I think back to this book. The kid is just that messed up. Read my full review of Under The Dome here.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Let’s turn our attention to one of the more sympathetic killer protagonists. Toni Morrison’s iconic novel Beloved is yet another based on the true story of a murderous woman – but there is the most heart-wrenching reason for it. Sethe is a formerly enslaved woman (based on Margaret Garner) living in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1873. She and her living daughter, Denver, are haunted by the ghost of the infant that Sethe killed to prevent her from being returned to a life of slavery. In this way, the story of a woman who murdered her child becomes a metaphor for the horrors of slavery and the inherited trauma of America’s Black history. It’s not a fun read, but hoo boy, it’s a powerful one. Read my full review of Beloved here.
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Okay, okay: the last of the killer protagonists on this list who was based on a real person! See What I Have Done imagines the real story behind the old nursery rhyme. “Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.” You probably jumped rope to it as a kid! But did Lizzie Borden really whack her father and mother, the way it says? Schmidt interrogates the family dynamics at play in the 19th century Massachusetts home, each party giving their own account and rendering their own (unreliable) perspective on the horrific events of that day. This is a historical fiction crime novel with more to it than meets the eye.
Diary Of A Murderer by Kim Young-Ha
You’d hardly be surprised to find killer protagonists in a book called Diary Of A Murderer, would you? This one does exactly what it says on the tin! It’s a collection of stories, including a novella about an amnesiac serial killer who wants to kill another serial killer (who also happens to be his daughter’s boyfriend). Freaky, right? The other stories also interrogate sex and death in various ways, with affairs, kidnappings, and boundaries crossed all over the shop. Each story has been lovingly translated into English from the original Korean by Krys Lee.