Top 5 GA serial-killer mysteries

For the first time, I am posting something that is not exclusively about Queen. Instead, I’ll briefly talk about one of my favourite subgenres and list what I consider to be the five best books belonging to it.  

The title clearly gives it away – it’s the serial-killer mystery. The Golden Age produced plenty of great books which truly represent this subgenre at its best. I’ve always delighted at the way puzzle-plotting is combined with increasing horror and tension as the number of killings rise. There is usually good misdirection, too, and the murderer is revealed in a dramatic fashion more often than not. 

There is one thing that I want to discuss before I get on with the list. And that is what exactly does a story need to do to qualify as a serial-killer mystery? Is having a large body count enough? Does the motive need to appear random at first? Do all the victims need to be unrelated to each other? What do you think? 

Well, all the books that follow satisfy the above criteria. Of course, the ranking is only in my opinion and I’m sure there are many I haven’t read. 

5) X v. Rex (1933) by Philip MacDonald

Somebody with a dark agenda is killing policemen all over London. It seems as if nobody can stop him – apart from Nicholas Revell, of course, classic example of a hero who can only exist in fiction. This is a straight thriller with little to no clueing, misdirection or retrospective illumination; in fact, it can hardly be considered a mystery at all. And yet it’s pretty enjoyable. The writing style draws you in, the characters are fascinating, and it is at times just hair-raising. MacDonald was a hugely inventive author and Murder Gone Mad (1931) is another great serial-killer book by him.

4) Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931) by Francis Beeding

This time the target is Eastrepps, a coastal town in England which attracts a lot of tourists. People from all walks of life are being slaughtered resulting in Inspector Wilkins of the Scotland Yard getting called up. Can he apprehend the murderer before it is too late? Of course, he can and does. This is an exhilarating read that is also very cleverly clued and the final reveal is legitimately surprising. I haven’t read anything else by Beeding but I keep meaning to get back to him. 

3) The Murders in Praed Street (1928) by John Rhode

Welcome to Praed street, London where strangers are not just being dispatched of in unusual ways, but tokens indicating the order in which they are getting killed is being found by their bodies. It falls to the famous retired professor Dr.Priestley to crack the case. Contains a refreshingly original idea for its time, though one that has been copied to death since. The plot moves very quickly with murders happening in the blink of an eye. The clueing isn’t particularly good, but I believe that was never Rhode’s strength. I read it recently – and this is what inspired the post. Definitely the best of the handful of Rhodes I’ve read so far. 

2) The ABC Murders (1936) by Agatha Christie

The great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is receiving typewritten letters mocking him while stating when and where a murder will take place.  Could it be the obvious suspect? But it’s Christie, so surely there is more to it than that. The Queen of Crime took a whack at this type of story too and she again shows us how it’s done. The murders are well spaced out so each one is given its due importance. The clueing is first-class with some lovely deductions that lead to the solution. This was my first Poirot and it made me a fan for life.  So why is this at second position? Well…….. 

1) Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Ellery Queen

You saw it coming, didn’t you? After all, this is a EQ-themed blog.  But I really believe this one is the best. It powerfully portrays the panic and confusion in New York City that ensue from a serial killer in their midst. Somebody is mercilessly strangling its citizens with silk cords and the entire city is screaming for justice. It’s up to Ellery Queen, who retired after an embarrassing failure, to redeem himself by being the saviour. The puzzle, while not as complex as some of their earlier ones, is still very good with some clever twists and turns. Arguably the magnum opus of the cousins’ oeuvre, this is easily one of the finest products of GAD. 

So how much of this do you agree with? Are there other great ones which I have missed? Your comments are more than welcome, and I look forward to a stimulating discussion! 

14 thoughts on “Top 5 GA serial-killer mysteries

  1. I’ve read all of these except the Queen title (must try to get a copy of that one…) and on the whole I agree with you, except that I didn’t like Death Walks in Eastrepps so much, and would put it at number 5. If authors were allowed to have more than one title in the list, then there’d be a strong case for And Then There Were None and MacDonald’s The List Of Adrian Messenger being there (since X v. Rex was originally published under the pseudonym Martin Porlock, it’s arguable that it would be allowable anyway).

    What other titles by John Rhode have you read? I think there are quite a few that are better than this one, although none of the others fit the serial killer mould.

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    1. This is the first time I’ve heard ATTWN being described as a serial-killer mystery! It violates my criteria of victims being unrelated to each other. I haven’t read ‘Adrian Messenger’ ,will get to it some day.

      The other Rhodes I tried are Paddington Mystery, Invisible Weapons, Mystery at Olympia and Where is Barbara Prentice?

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  2. I’ve not read Death Walks in Eastrepps, but agree with your number 1 and 2. The ABC Murders and Cat of Many Tails are the classic examples of the Golden Age serial killer mystery novel. However, my personal favorite is John Dickson Carr’s criminally underrated Captain Cut-Throat. An elusive murderer is targeting sentries under the nose of Napoleon!

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    1. I have plenty of unread Carrs and CCT is one of them. Frankly, I’m not much interested about his historical output as they just aren’t my kind of thing. I didn’t know CCT was considered serial-killer — will try to find a copy of it.

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  3. I’ve read 3 of the 5 you mention. I have to second Tomcat’s praise of CCT. I remember enjoying that one. I would also recommend Alice Campbell’s Travelling Butcher and Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch. I foolishly read this latter one home alone on a stormy night, which was perhaps not the best idea given the setting and setup of the book!

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  4. I’m not overly fond of serial killer mysteries since they aren’t greatly compatible with my beloved fair-play mysteries (though I certainly enjoy EQ’s and AC’s offerings here), so I’ll just suggest a couple of other novels that you may have missed.

    Neil Gordon “The Silent Murders”
    Anthony Berkeley “The Silk Stocking Murders”

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    1. Yeah, it’s always hard to integrate good clewing with the increasing body count but it can be done and I think both Christie and Queen did it very well here.

      SSM is one of the few Berkeleys I haven’t read. It has a staggeringly poor reputation — Kate ranked it last in her recent post on Berkeley. I hadn’t heard of Gordon before. Thanks for the recommendation!

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      1. Yeah, but then Kate doesn’t really like EQ either, does she? 😉

        I don’t think “The Silk Stocking Murders” is anywhere near Berkeley’s best books, but it’s interesting to read as it was almost certainly a huge influence on another book you’ve probably read. Unfortunately, it is antisemitic to an extent that stands out quite a bit even for a GA mystery.

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        1. “Yeah, but then Kate doesn’t really like EQ either, does she?”
          That’s a good point. Always need to take the opinions of these EQ haters with a pinch of salt…I’ll read SSM at some point.

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  5. I have not read the Rhodes. The others are good; the Beeding is pleasant but boy is the solution obvious. I agree the first two are better than the others.

    I don’t know a lot of “serial killer” GAD, once you exclude conventional GAD with a lot of victims such as Christie’s best book (as you should).

    Depending on the boundaries, both of time and content,
    In A Lonely Place, Hughes
    The Killer Inside Me, Thompson
    The Bride Wore Black, Woolrich

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