Peter James: Researching Serial Killers for You Are Dead

Written by Peter James

 As part of my research for the eleventh Roy Grace novel You Are Dead, I studied a wide number of serial killers, both in the UK, in the US and in other countries, too, trying to establish what common denominators, if any, there were. 

Though we could never kill someone ourselves, many of us have experienced the emotions that prelude certain murders and so, in part, we can understand the motives behind them. A ruthless armed robber who shoots out of greed. A lover who kills in a fit of jealous rage. A hit man who kills for money. But what about the person who kills for pleasure or satisfaction? What about the serial killer? It is the serial killer who intrigues and chills us all, driven by a mindset that is sometimes beyond understanding – and always repugnant to decent human beings.

 I’ve talked to many murderers during my research for this book, and studied dozens of case histories. Many show little or no remorse for their crimes, apart from the regret of being caught and having to serve sentences that they feel are too long. Some ofyou will remember from my last interview with WH Smith the story of the woman who poisoned her mother-in-law and her husband in order to get their money. Her husband was on life support for 3 years and left brain dead and her mother-in-law died, but when I spoke to this woman she was simply indignant about the length of her sentence.

 From what I have been told, a psychopath – or sociopath – is someone who is born to think differently to the vast majority, to experience no empathy for others. In some cases this is present from a very early age - a child psychopath may show no guilt at stealing from others or hurting animals. Psychologists suggest that what happens next for a child like this may determine the path they choose.

 A nurturing family may encourage the child to grow up to become a top politician or a captain of industry or even a leader of a nation. A high level of intelligence is a trait often found in psychopaths and psychologist Norman F Dixon even wrote in his book Our Own Worst Enemy -


‘To be born a psychopath is the best possible qualification to get you to the top in life.  Unfortunately it is the worst qualification to then keep you there.”

We can find many examples of ruthless and cunning people who have made their way to the top but have been hindered in sustaining their power by the same qualities that got them there. Richard Nixon, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin and Robert Maxwell to name a few. That’s not to say that ifthese people had had a different childhood then they would have gone on to become serial killers, but there is a correlation between behaviour that implies a lack of empathy and a high level of intelligence and power. Whether that power is climbing to the top of a respective field, or getting away with murder.

 There is a long list of multiple or serial killers who have a dark childhood history. The psychopath child brought up in a dysfunctional or abusive family could potentially be a dangerous person. Adolf Hitler, for example, is known to have had a bullying father who would not allow him to pursue a career as a painter and was thought to have struggled to deal with the death of his younger brother during childhood. While many psychologists suggest that this could have been a trigger for the warped path his life then took, there are just as many serial killers who do not fit this mould.

 Some while ago I was invited to spend a day at Broadmoor.  To be admitted as an inmate to Broadmoor, you will have been professionally diagnosed as violently, criminally insane. My visit there was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I expected the day to be filled with darkness – and there were a significant number of dark and quite frightening moments – but there were several moments of light too which caught me by surprise.

 The Chaplain took me around for the day and helped answer some of my questions on Broadmoor. One question that I asked him was whether he believed that evil existed. His answer was that at that time, without exception, all of the inmates could be placed into one of two categories – either they were schizophrenics or psychopaths. He explained that schizophrenics experience delusions, such as hearing voices, which may lead them to carry out violent behaviour. For example Peter Sutcliffe (the Yorkshire Ripper) who currently resides at Broadmoor claims he started killing after hearing voices from God telling him to go and kill prostitutes. The chaplain explained that schizophrenics are born with a chemical imbalance in the brain which can be treated with medication. As long as they remain on medication permanently, over 50% of the schizophrenics at Broadmoor could be rehabilitated into the community over time. Psychopaths, however, are very different.    

 My research led me to focus upon four real-life killers when creating my central villain for my novel. What fascinated me about these individuals was how they managed to keep up an appearance as very respectable men. All four of these men got away with their crimes for many years and very nearly got away with them completely. Each of them blended into society perfectly which makes their secret crimes all the more chilling. Harold Shipman was a well-loved family doctor. Dennis Nilsen was in the army, the police force and worked as an Executive Office for a Jobcentre. Ted Bundy worked for the Republican party and was highly intelligent and good looking. Dennis Rader was a local government compliance officer and church warden.

 Dennis Rader has long fascinated me, a serial killer who murdered nine women and one man between 1974 and 2001 in the Witchita Kansas area. Rader was known to tie his victims up and torture them before eventually killing them. Many hours of police interviews took place, recorded on video. After Rader confessed to his crimes, the officer interviewing him asked why he did it. “It was erotic,” was his response. “It turned me on to tie them up.” The officer continued by asking if he couldn’t have tied his wife up instead. His answer was very matter-of-fact, “Oh sure, I used to do that but it got boring”.

 Many households know the name Ted Bundy who was executed by electric chair in 1989 after confessing to murdering 39 women, although police believe the number is over 100 women in reality. Months after Bundy was dumped by his first love – a teenager with long dark hair and a central parting – he saw a hitchhiker who looked similar. Bundy decided to give the young woman a lift, and then raped and strangled her. In his interview with police he admitted that the crime made him feel good. The spree that followed that first murder lasted a decade until Bundy’s capture in 1975, and continued during a period that Bundy escaped. His crimes were so frequent that he was known to rape and kill two different young women on the same day.

 I have also seen police tapes of interviews with Bundy, and witnessed some truly chilling statements that I have used elements of when writing You Are Dead. During his interviews, there was one FBI agent that Bundy trusted, and Bundy explained to that officer what he liked to do with his victims. His words were: “I would put my lips over hers and suck out her very last breath. That way she would never leave me, and I would possess her for ever.”

 My villain embodies many of the traits that these four killers have. Some of these traits were the very things that allowed them to stay undetected for so long. Nielsen’s massive ego and deep insecurity, Rader’s sadistic streak, Shipman’s charm, meekness and the trust he instilled in people and Bundy’s targetting of women in a certain age range with a specific hairstyle. And my killer is also very smart. Smart enough to almost get away with it.  



‘You Are Dead’ (Macmillan £20) is published on 21st May 2015 – But it HERE!
Read SHOTS' review HERE

 Photo Peter James © Ali Karim


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