Human technology is steadily making leaps and bounds into the future, but one thing left unachieved is the ability to read minds. This might not be the worst thing in the world. Just think of all the dark, twisted thoughts that pop up uninvited in your own mind and are quickly tamped down in the name of sanity. Now, imagine all the thoughts that come up in the mind of a murderer. Would you really want to know those? 

If this theoretical technology could prevent heinous crimes, yes, of course. And maybe, just maybe, your darker thoughts are telling you that it would be a little bit exciting to see what makes someone kill. We won’t tell on you. In fact, we’ll even encourage you …

Well, we’ll encourage you to explore these ideas in a safe, do-no-harm way: books. Fiction, too, just to make it extra secure. By venturing into these novels, you can get under the skin of, and delve deep into the minds of, serial killers, murderers and revenge-obsessed vigilantes. But you can still close the book whenever you’d like and walk away in one piece! Nothing to be ashamed of, or afraid of, here. 

I take that back: there’s plenty to be afraid of. Actually, the seven selections below, even though they’re, thankfully, made-up, may keep you up at night with your eyes wide open in a state of abject fear. The authors toy with the readers the way the killers toy with victims, manipulating you to experience horror in the absolute best, most enjoyable way. Prepare to be scared stiff and love every minute of it as you take a peek under the hood of some terrifying fictional narrators.

You by Caroline Kepnes

Have you heard of the Netflix smash-hit series that has people wondering how in the world they can keep watching, and even somewhat perversely delighting in, the life and “loves” of a truly twisted stalker? Well, it started with this book by bestselling author Caroline Kepnes, lauded by none other than the New York Times as “some kind of a storytelling sorcerer.” Fall under her spell. 

Joe meets the girl of his dreams, but instead of leaving the next steps up to the universe, he decides to gather all the data on her that he possibly can in order to manipulate, without her knowing a whisper of his schemes, their happy ending. Since this list obviously revolves around killers and their hideous hidden machinations, it’s really not a spoiler to say that Joe deems all fair in love and war: if murder will win him his target, then he’s perfectly willing to fight dirty.

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Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Full of morbid schemes but also giving new blood to the phrase “dark sense of humor,” the quiet and polite Dexter Morgan spends his time working as a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. He also happens to be an adept and accomplished serial killer. When a second, and eerily similar, serial killer shows up on his home turf, Dexter has to get very careful as his meticulously ordered life starts to fall apart. 

The irony and sideways-smile-inducing concept of good-guy-who-is-actually-the-bad-guy would not at all be lost on any reader looking for both a great thriller and a great time. Then, if you’re having a hard time letting go of these dastardly dealings, catch a rerun of the highly successful TV series that ran for an impressive eight seasons. The gruesome adventures and encounters make for a bloody good show.

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A Time for Monsters by Gareth Worthington

“A masterfully built story of abuse, pain and possible redemption unfolds … Can understanding the ‘Monsters’ make you accept or condemn them? How Worthington made me actually love and understand a serial killer is beyond me,” reflects a hooked reviewer. She’s not the only one who’s fallen hard for this chilling thriller: the jarring novel is a Nordic noir in the vein of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo combined with an upcoming book on this list, Death Wish

Yet, Worthington’s creation is clearly unique: a female serial killer, who only feels even a brief twinge of emotion when listening to music, is hell-bent on revenge and must outwit a disgraced detective determined to redeem himself if she is to complete her carefully-orchestrated plan and cover up the ultimate secret. Here’s a visualization for you: Reyna Blackburn remembers every single song for every horrific event in her life. She remembers what song was playing on the radio the first time he hurt her. And she remembers what was playing through her headphones the first time she killed … 

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Devil’s Peak by Deon Meyer

The next choice diversifies the mix since it is actually translated from Afrikaans, the native language of its South African author. Set in Cape Town post-apartheid, the shifting, nuanced and tumultuous cultural climate plays a large role in the events that unfold. Three different characters offer their very different perspectives and are connected by a horrific crime; murder, revenge, religion and rampant personal crises infect the narrative and inject a healthy, or maybe unhealthy, dose of suspense. 

This novel packs an extra gut-punch because the crime that bonds the characters is child abuse. With so many complex layers, the writing has to be air-tight and intricately woven so that nothing gets away and creates gaping plot holes. Deon Meyer makes sure to do his research, and if you’re looking for a read that opens your eyes to the adversity experienced in a foreign and beleaguered country while feeling a little peace in the knowledge that it’s still fiction, this is a perfect choice. 

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Death Wish by Brian Garfield

First published in 1972, this book contributed to paving the way for the others on the list. Protagonist (if we can call him that) Paul Benjamin has survived some serious trauma. His beloved family is brutally attacked, resulting in his wife’s death and his daughter’s hospitalization for a severe coma. Paul decides to take matters into his own hands even if it means getting his hands dirty … even bloody. Fatal revenge, in this case, seems almost justifiable. 

Inspiring sequels, film adaptations and other authors’ future ventures into the minds of killers, this novel dares you to come along for the bumpy ride. It explores not just the unfolding of a crime, but the unhinging of a mind bent on murder and battling the demons of intense PTSD. Garfield thereby avoids the easy route of just throwing together some jump-scares and cliffhangers: the psychological analysis of violence and vengeance creates a complex and multifaceted thriller. 

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Endings by Linda L Richards

“Brilliant. Terrifying. Compulsively readable,” says Hallie Ephron, the New York Times bestselling author. What better four words could be spoken in praise of a thriller? How far can a profound personal loss drive someone toward darkness? What would it take for you to kill someone for money? And if you did, who, or what, would you devolve into in the process? These are the questions that one tortured woman faces when she loses everyone she loves and everything she has. When the opportunity arrives to reinvent herself as a killer for hire, she takes it. She’s definitely good at it, and if she doesn’t go ahead, someone else will. But is all this a good enough reason to commit the unthinkable? 

Then everything changes when she learns about a serial killer so horrible she vows to find him and kill him until, overcome by self-doubt, she seeks redemption rather than vengeance. The twists and turns will have your mind whirling as you try to keep up and keep rooting for a very distinct, dangerous and somehow still sympathetic, antiheroine. Read our review here.

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They Never Learn by Layne Fargo

One of the elements often lacking in thrillers is a feminist edge, but when it’s present it certainly gives the book some extra leverage. Teachers are usually seen as modest, meek retiring types, especially women, correct? Not the protagonist in Layne Fargo’s masterpiece. Professor Scarlett Clarke is determined to be the best at her workplace, Gorman University, and to keep on that trajectory, she has a peculiar yearly goal: kill someone who deserves it, and naturally, it’s always going to be a man. 

Simultaneously, two female students become fast friends, and when one is sexually assaulted, the other formulates a plan to avenge her. Obsession swirls strongly at Gorman University, and there are plenty of skeletons stuffed away in overstuffed closets about to fling wide open. If you’re looking for a different kind of killer-centric thriller, try this fierce, feisty and probing novel.

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