Serial killers are a regular feature in crime novels. More often than not, they’re pitted against a hero sleuth who is sickened by their nemesis’s behavior and lives for the chance to see the monster behind bars.
What happens, though, when the killer is a member of their own family?
In recent years, several mysteries and thrillers have explored this premise, which adds a layer of moral and emotional complexity to the conventional good vs. evil theme. There’s a lot to unpack with a concept like this one. What kind of loyalty, if any, would somebody feel toward a member of their family knowing that individual committed an unforgivable crime? What if the killer’s family is unaware of their heinous behavior? What happens when they discover the unthinkable truth? And what about the philosophies of philia and storge as they relate to the killer? Is a psychopath even capable of familial love? The family bond can be a strong one…but blood ties can also be bloody.
Dead Wind, the third book in my Shana Merchant series, finds BCI Senior Investigator Shana Merchant struggling to reconcile family ties with her need to capture serial murderer and blood relative Blake Bram. Despite their personal history, Shana doesn’t empathize with Bram. He bears little resemblance to the boy she cared for as a child. At the same time, she feels an obligation to the rest of her family to uncover his motives, and is reluctant to reveal Bram’s true identity until she has puzzled out his purpose. Shana’s family isn’t yet aware that they’re closely connected to a killer, but Shana is, and that knowledge is an albatross around her neck.
In the five following thrillers, family ties to known killers complicate characters’ lives as well – and it isn’t just the heroes who find themselves in conflict.
A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham
It wasn’t easy for Chloe Davis when her father confessed to murdering multiple teenage girls in their small Louisiana town. Her family quickly became pariahs, to the point where Chloe opted to change her name and move to Baton Rouge in an effort to distance herself from her father’s betrayal. With a successful career as a psychologist and a loving fiancé, Chloe has finally managed to find happiness. All of that changes when young girls start to go missing again, despite the fact that her father remains imprisoned.
The appearance of a copycat killer plunges Chloe back into a world she fought hard to escape, yet she’s unable to turn away from these fresh horrors and finds herself determined to locate the murderer. Throughout A Flicker in the Dark, a psychological thriller that shimmers with southern gothic atmosphere, Chloe struggles to move beyond her shameful past. Little does she know the story she was told about her family isn’t quite what she believed it to be.
The Family Tree by Steph Mullin and Nicole Mabry
When an ancestry kit reveals that Liz Catalano may be related to a suspected serial murderer, she doesn’t know what to think. Liz only recently learned that she was adopted, and has begun the process of getting to know her newly discovered biological family. Meanwhile, the FBI hopes Liz’s link to suspects like her grand uncle Cris and Cris’s cousin Adam will help them unearth enough evidence to identify and apprehend the guilty party.
For Liz, her quest to find TSK (the Tri-State Killer) is largely about her own identity and need to suss out the dark secrets of her DNA. The closer she gets to Cris, the more afraid she becomes that her flesh and blood could be a predator, and Mullin and Mabry make sure the reader feels that tension at every turn.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
In this inventive and darkly funny thriller, tenderhearted nurse Korede feels she has no choice but to help her younger sister Ayoola. Ayoola has a nasty habit of murdering her boyfriends, and Korede is terrified that her sister will be found out.
This masterwork of Nigerian Noir is about murder, but it’s also a study of sisterly love, the complexity of sibling relationships, and romantic rivalry. While Korede initially feels obligated to protect her sister, she finds herself rethinking her position when Ayoola sets her sights on Tade – the object of Korede’s desire. Suddenly, Korede needs to figure out how to protect him, too.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
I’d venture to say there are few fictional killers as charming as Dexter Morgan. In spite of his Dark Passenger, which urges him to kill, Dexter isn’t all bad. His killing spree began when his adoptive father, a “good cop” who recognized his psychopathic tendencies early on, encouraged him to kill only those who’d committed horrific crimes themselves. What’s more, Dexter spends his days helping to solve homicides as a blood splatter expert with the Miami-Dade Police.
Dexter’s unorthodox moral code is only part of the reason Darkly Dreaming Dexter works so well. The dynamic between Dexter and his adoptive sister Deborah is fascinating. Deb, who’s a cop, isn’t fully aware of Dexter’s hobby, but she recognizes that he’s different, and she uses his uncanny instincts to advance her own investigation of a serial murder case.
Dexter isn’t loyal to many, and he isn’t prone to love, but he can’t say no to his sister, and he owes his late adoptive father a debt of gratitude for helping him channel those dark impulses as well. Despite this novel’s stunner of an ending, one has to wonder where Dexter would be without his family.
You Love Me by Caroline Kepnes
Joe Goldberg, the anti-hero of Caroline Kepnes’s You series, is unlucky in love. He has already killed several people who got in the way of his pursuit to find the one, but he’s still determined to settle down, this time with librarian Mary Kay DiMarco. Trouble is, Mary Kay already has a family.
In fact, so does Joe. He has little contact with his young son Forty back in California now that his ex-girlfriend’s family has paid him to stay away, but Forty is never far from his mind. While You Love Me is about Joe’s obsession with Mary Kay, it’s also about his yearning to raise his son.
Caroline Kepnes excels at presenting Joe’s over-the-top crimes through the lens of a man who wants to live a relatively simple life. The question, of course, is whether it’s possible for a sociopath like Joe Goldberg to have a family life at all.