Why I write about serial killers

“How did you get interested in serial killers?” Let’s face it – that’s probably the most common question I get asked once people learn what I do. At least it’s one I actually have an answer to. And even a specific date for.

I was in London in July 2007. My mom was helping me plan the trip and I told her that I had to be there on July 20, because Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out at 12:01am on the 21st. I stood in line, got my book, and made sure to read all of it before leaving my hotel room in the morning, just to make sure I wouldn’t run into any spoilers. Except then I didn’t have anything to read.

I took the underground to the zoo but for some reason on my way back the station I’d used was closed. There was a sign directing people to the next station, and that street took me past a bookshop. (Not there one where I got Harry Potter – that was at King’s Cross Station.) I went in and decided to look for a book about Jack the Ripper, since there were advertisements everywhere for Ripper walks and the like, but they all started after dark. I didn’t feel like trying to find my way back to the hotel that late, all by myself, so I figured hey, let’s see if they have a book.

I ended up asking if they had any books about Jack the Ripper – silly question – and I got directed to an entire bookshelf. I’d been hoping for, I don’t know, a couple books to choose from, instead of a couple dozen, and was honestly stumped. I’d already been given a bit of a long-suffering look when I’d asked if they had any books, so I decided not to ask again. I pulled out the two thickest books and arbitrarily chose Philip Sugden’s The Complete History of Jack the Ripper.

It’s not a small book, and not quick reading. I had it done in a matter of days. And I’d bought my second Ripper book before leaving London. By the time I’d signed the contract to write Ripper’s Victims, I owned around 40. That book cites about 80. At last count, thanks to an app on my phone that helps me keep from buying doubles, I own 120. And those numbers are just for single-subject book-length accounts of the Ripper crimes. (For comparison, in that same app, my general “true crime” bookshelf has 187 titles listed.)

Almost every bookstore has a true crime shelf. It’s the one genre I routinely seek out when I go into them, and the one genre where I still prefer to have paper copies instead of eBooks – it makes citations easier, and it’s easier to scribble notes in the margins or flip back to find that one special quote. When I start organizing an idea I’ll pull books out and reorganize them, grouping certain ones together as a visual representation of my ideas. Plus it’s just cool to have so many bookshelves full of my research.

So how did I get interested in serial killers? I was in London for the ending of Harry Potter, and it turned out that the next book I picked up marked a new beginning.

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