Those with an interest in true crime - and indeed, those who have watched the TV series Mindhunters - will have heard of at least some of the serial killers featured in this book. Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, Andrei Chikatilo, Dennis Nilsen, Richard Ramirez, Jack the Ripper and Elizabeth Bàthory are names of which most are aware. There are plenty of others here I hadn’t heard of, though, including Fritz Haarman, Gilles de Rais, Joachim Kroll, Adolfo Costanzo and Anatoly Onoprienko. While by no means an exhaustive list of serial killers, nor confined to only the most prolific, what the murderers in this collection have in common is their bloodlust. They all took sick, depraved pleasure in butchery, many of them descending to cannibalism.
If you plan to read this, make sure you have a strong stomach and don’t read while trying to eat. While the accounts don’t dwell pruriently on the gory details, neither do they shy away from revealing the nauseating truth of these appalling crimes. I read quite a bit of true crime and consider myself pretty inured to it, but due to the fairly condensed nature of these accounts, there’s an awful lot packed into this book. With 28 killers’ crimes described, the victims number not in the hundreds, but the thousands, and the crimes are among the most revolting ever recorded. It’s a confronting read, to say the least.
While some of the killers - Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer etc. - are the subject of much more exhaustive examinations elsewhere, the short chapters devoted to each here do provide quite a good introduction while giving the reader the tools to do further reading on specific cases should they be interested. A simple Wikipedia search will lead the reader to a bibliography… except in the case of Lucian Staniak, whose inclusion in this book did make me side-eye the author’s research somewhat, because Lucian Staniak, aka the Red Spider, is as fictional as Sweeney Todd or Hannibal Lecter. It’s thought Staniak was invented by true crime writer Colin Wilson, because researchers who wanted to write a biopic were unable to find any evidence that he actually existed, a problem easily uncovered with a simple Google search. Without addressing this issue, his inclusion in this work is deeply problematic and unfortunately calls the legitimacy of the entire collection into question. It is usual, in true crime books, to include an appendix of reference sources for further reading, something I would strongly recommend the author consider adding. Just looking for these references would likely have exposed the problem of Staniak and caused a reconsideration of his inclusion.
In addition to this, I’m somewhat bemused by the cover image, since I recognise one of the three faces featured as Fred West - who while he’s certainly a serial killer, isn’t one of those mentioned in the book? It seems like a strange and misleading image to choose.
While I did enjoy this and would consider it an introduction to many serial killers both infamous and obscure, as well as a good addition to any true-crime library, the inclusion of Lucian Staniak and the absence of a reference bibliography does make me question the legitimacy of the author’s research methods. For this reason, I’m unable to give it a maximum five-star rating.
Serial Killers: Butchers and Cannibals is available now.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.