How to spot a killer

How to spot a killer

My novel The Woman Before Me is out this month, and it deals with love, obsession – and murder.

Before dedicating myself to crime writing I worked as a probation officer, and for part of my career I was based on a unit for boys convicted of the most serious crimes. They were rapists and also convicted killers (sometimes the conviction had been reduced from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility).

Because I was working with children there was no textbook to refer to, no massive body of research to draw on. It was pretty much me in a room with the boy, both of us trying to work out what the hell went wrong. But it wasn’t long before I saw a pattern, one identified in the few books on the subject and also on studies of adult killers. They are what you might guess, sad histories of child abuse and loss, bereavement and neglect. Also, most had a personality disorder or distorted thinking.

It hasn’t been easy to distil this into bite-sized chunks, but here is my attempt at a bluffer’s guide to spotting a killer – and how they are portrayed in fiction.

Mother love

Open the newspaper today and I’m willing to bet you can find a story of child cruelty or a child killed by its parents. When I wrote The Woman Before Me, publishers said it was too dark, this story of a woman convicted of killing a baby. But in my view, fiction should reflect reality, and try to shine a light into even the darkest corners as it has done since Euripides created Medea.

Til death do us part

The stats on marital murder make marriage look like a high-risk decision. The common perception is that husbands kill after a campaign of domestic violence and abuse, but when wives kill, it is in self-defence or after years of victimisation. But Tracie Andrews, who murdered her fiance, and Julia Merfeld, who attempted to hire a hitman to kill her husband, show otherwise. Both women plotted to, and in the case of Andrews, actually killed their partners. In her classic novel Rebecca Daphne Du Maurier shows marriage as a battleground: the fight for supremacy and jealousy can reach a tipping point and make love lethal.

Family ties

Scene: an executive home on a swanky estate, an idyllic-llooking family, the wife is pleasant and pretty, the husband hard working and a little tense.

Back-story: debts, hidden piles of bills, a foreclosure statement from the mortgage lender.

The man is defiant and angry: “I will kill my family before I let them suffer.”

An excellent fictional example, with a twist, is Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places.

The ultimate punishment

One of the first cases I worked on was that of a young woman whose boyfriend had left her. She had driven her car to a remote spot with her twin boys in the back seat, and put a hose from the exhaust into the car. Luckily a jogger found them in time.

The first thing she said to me was, “I loved my boyfriend. Too much.”

This mixing of love and death is a common theme, as is the distorted thinking. To spot this particular killer, look for a failed relationship and the introduction of a new partner. The spurned lover, male or female, will be with the kids. Sometimes there is a call, sometimes a simple Facebook post. This killer is clear: this was your fault, not mine.

Sometimes they follow the children into oblivion, sometimes not, and then they have the ultimate prize of seeing their ex sit through the court trial.

Joyce Carol Oates drew on the JonBenet Ramsey murder when she wrote My Sister, My Love: The Intimate History of Skyler Rampike.

Bizarre deaths/fetishism

Far less domestic, this killer is more likely to attract headlines across the world. When Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal, advertised for a ‘willing victim’ he didn’t see himself as a killer, though the court convicted him as one. My second novel, The Sacrificial Man, is inspired by this case and my research uncovered the sad, sick and odd but also strong parallels to other cases. Themes include isolation, absent fathers or over-protective mothers.

Hitchcock wasn’t far wrong with his portrayal of Norman Bates in Psycho, but for a literary view of how normal people come to commit bizarre murder, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is spot on.

Children who kill

The difference with killers who aren’t even teenagers is that the world isn’t fixed for them, and is often indistinguishable from the fantasy world of films or computers. When Jon Venables was interviewed after James Bulger’s horrific death he asked his mother: “Will the little boy be OK, mum?”, as if James could re-emerge like a character in a video game.

Alex Marwood explores this theme in The Wicked Girls, while Lionel Shriver’s study of the adolescent killer in We Need to Talk About Kevin rang true for me; just like Kevin, the boys I worked with, all convicted of grave crimes, failed to grasp the magnitude of what they had done. And, chillingly, that made it seem like a game.

Lovers who kill

Myra and Ian, Rose and Fred. The alchemy of two individuals, together creating a world in which murder is acceptable, even desirable. Brady used Hindley to lure children, Rose acted as foil for Fred; the involvement of a female makes the crime easier to commit, easier to hide (women don’t do such things, do they?) and when it is uncovered, it seems far more shocking to the general public. In fiction Lady Macbeth casts a dark shadow, and her relationship with Macbeth confirms that shared responsibility makes taking the step to evil easier. In any group situation we are more likely to take risks, and sadly this is also true with murder.

Stranger danger

Far rarer, yet over-represented in crime fiction, is the isolated killer who stalks and slays a stranger. It is our worst fear.

Although such crimes appear random, the killer will still work to a pattern; they will commit the crime in areas they are familiar with, dispose of the body in the same way each time. There will be a pattern because human beings are creatures of habit, and also a progression because everything is improved with practice.


The inevitable truth is that killers don’t have horns, they live among us. After the event, neighbours will often muse, “He was always strange” but who isn’t wise with hindsight? Studies and research showing patterns are an essential way for professionals to understand the killer, and to prevent others becoming one. As a crime practitioner turned writer, this knowledge is nothing less than vital.

Ruth Dugdall’s new extended edition of The Woman Before Me is published by Legend Press.