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When most people read about murderers, rapists, and school shooters in the newspaper, it's hard to imagine them as people. It's hard to imagine that someone who could have been your neighbor do things so heinous and horrifying as ending others' lives. However, all criminals were someone's neighbor at one point.
In pop culture, criminals are often played as people who just do violent things because they can. They are seen as modern-day boogeymen who are incapable of normal thought—and are even cast as such in mainstream Hollywood movies.
Criminal psychologists know better.
There's always a reason why people end up becoming violent criminals, and for most of us, it's a hard concept to grasp. If you've ever been interested in finding out what goes on in the mind of a murderer, kidnapper, or rapist, reading criminal psychology books might help you out.
The following books have been hailed for their deep insight, gripping tales, and mind-blowingly intimate looks into the minds of some of the most notorious criminals to ever live. Have you gotten your hands on these favorites yet?
I: The Creation of a Serial Killer by Jack Olsen
Most people who have done horrible things to others aren't proud of the fact, but many serial killers are. Such was the case with Keith Hunter Jesperson, who was proud enough of his slayings to taunt police for arresting the wrong people for the murders he committed in a series of notes accompanied by his serial killer calling card.
Jack Olsen is an Edgar Award-winning author who decided to let a serial killer tell his side of story in his own words, giving people a terrifying glance into the dark and twisted world of a serial killer's mind.
What makes I: The Creation of a Serial Killer such a brilliant book is that it not only humanized Jesperson, but presents his story in a shockingly sympathetic way. All things considered, it's as close to seeing a murder happen from a killer's eyes as you can get.
"All women and especially young girls should read this book. The level of brutality and extent of this man's cruelties are hard to fathom. Most of his victims were prostitutes whose lifestyle may predispose to certain risks but he also slaughtered and tortured his girlfriends.
I remember how my parents' Volkswagen broke down in the late 70s on a Wyoming highway and we were assisted by kindly truckers. I shudder to think what would have happened if we had fallen instead into this killer's clutches." - Amazon
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault
Most criminal psychology books focus on the buildup to a murder, a rape, or what are the signs that a person is going to attack. This is one of the few to have a deeper focus on the aftermath of a crime.
Philosophy fans will notice that this book is written by Michel Foucault—one of the most respected and influential philosophers to hail from France since Sartre. His work mostly focused in on power and politics, which is why he ended up creating one of the best criminal psychology books to be written in the 20th century.
Discipline and Punish is a scathing critique that shows how the modern prison system evolved and why it tends to play such a huge impact on the souls of both the incarcerated and the free. Erudite and insightful, Discipline and Punish gives you a good look at why the prison system fails criminals.
Considering the high rate of recidivism the American prison system has, this book remains more relevant than ever.
"The author describes in great detail the many steps that have been taken over many centuries by those in power to manipulate, control, terrify, quantify, observe, categorize and cajole humanity into manageable pigeonhole dwelling "units". It makes you want to immediately read Thoreau." - Amazon
Dangerous Personalities: An FBI Profiler Shows You How to Identify and Protect Yourself from Harmful People by Joe Navarro
Few people understand criminals like the ones who are paid to catch them and put them behind bars.
Joe Navarro is more than qualified to write one of the top-selling criminal psychology books on Amazon. He's a former FBI criminal profiler who spent years working alongside law enforcement to predict crime, solve murders, and help cops understand how criminals think.
Those who wish to avoid being harmed by a criminal, or just want to know what causes people to become violent, will find this to be one of the most fascinating reads they ever put their hands on.
Dangerous Personalities details the four types of personalities that are most likely to turn violent: narcissists, emotionally unstable, paranoics, and predators. He then explains the warning signs of each, and gives insight into what makes each personality type turn violent.
People who want to avoid dangerous people and get deeper insight into the mind of criminals from all walks of life should read Dangerous Personalities. It may just be a book that saves your life.
"This a book everyone in this nation - heck, in this world - should read and reread. I am a former district attorney and now a criminal defense attorney and I see people every day with many of these issues in their personalities. Forewarned is forearmed." - Amazon
The Psychopath Whisperer by Kent A. Kiehl
It's a well-known fact that there is a higher percentage of violent criminals who have psychopathy than there is among the general population. The Psychopath Whisperer is one of the many criminal psychology books to focus in on the personality disorder known as psychopathy—also known as a lack of conscience.
Most of us, whether we realize it or not, have met a psychopath in our lifetimes. Around 1 out of every 100 people is a psychopath, and Kent A. Kiehl's book allows you to see how they think, how to predict them, and how to avoid them at all costs.
Though not all criminals are psychopaths, this book definitely gives you a better idea of what goes through a mind of a psychopath before, during, and after a crime.
"Eye-opening account a psychologist who dedicates his life to investigating psychopaths. His research suggests that there is a collection of attributes that classifies someone as a psychopath and brain scans provide hints that a psychopath brain operates differently than "normal" criminals. He was a student of a psychologist who established criteria for determining a psychopathology diagnosis but Dr. Kiehl advanced the research on psychopathology with sophisticated MRI devices." - Amazon
Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI by Robert Ressler and Tom Shachtman
FBI veteran and one of the first people to use the phrase "serial killer," Robert K. Ressler understands violent criminals in a way that most others will never be able to. This book tells stories of how he helped hunt down some of the most famous serial killers in American history—and how understanding criminals played an important role in it.
It's considered to be one of the best forensic psychology books to be widely read by mainstream audiences because it offers a great look into how killers tick. Despite it being about killers' minds, it also remains a great story that will make you all the more thankful for the FBI's ability to track down violent crime.
Be forewarned, though. Whoever Fights Monsters has very graphic descriptions of murders, bodies, and crime scenes. So, you might want to avoid reading this while you're eating.
"I am a total true crime reader and getting the information Mr. Ressler has is amazing. I would love to spend a few hrs picking his brain, being a profiler is something I always wanted to do. Reading this book takes you right into the daily life of a profiler and how they do what they do. This is a must read for any true crime reader, just be ready for the whole story some descriptions may be graphic to some readers." - Amazon
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker
Often hailed as one of the most influential criminal psychology books ever written, The Gift of Fear is just as much about how to predict violent crime as it is about using your body's instincts to protect yourself. Gavin de Becker himself has a lot of proof that his knowledge works; he's the one who created the MOSAIC violence prediction tool.
The Gift of Fear takes a look at real-life stories where people's survival instincts ignited before trouble arose, and breaks down all the subconscious signals criminals send before they attack. Anyone who lives in a dangerous neighborhood or just wants to protect themselves needs to take a look at what this book has to say.
Few books really humanize criminals like this one, primarily because he delves into the past of many violent criminals as part of the book. He drives home the point that anyone can kill under the right circumstances—and that it only takes one single misstep to become a victim or perpetrator to violence.
As one critic so aptly put it, "this book can save your life."
"This is one of the best self awareness books I have ever read. It's not about bad people. It's about understanding that YOU know about bad people and trusting yourself when the hair stands on the back of your neck. I quote this book often and buy it for my loved ones because it is such a good wake-up call about how we are trained to ignore our instincts, making us susceptible to harm." - Amazon
Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas
Former FBI agent John E. Douglas has written a number of the most popular criminal psychology books on the market, but without a doubt, Mindhunter is his most famous work. It's so popular, Netflix even announced a Mindhunter series based on his life.
Mindhunter takes readers into terrifying situations that he endured while chasing down some of the most notorious criminals the world has ever seen—including a run-in with the Green River Killer that almost ended Douglas' life.
Gruesome criminal stories and fantastic storytelling makes this one of the best true crime books of all time. The striking looks into the minds of his targets and his trailblazing use of forensic psychology, though, is what seals it as a criminal psych must-have.
It's a New York Times bestseller that definitely deserves accolades.
"I found this book deeply disturbing, terrifying, yet enlightening from the father of Profiling serial killers. Its amazing why these individuals kill people ...the psychological profiling, history, back ground and up bringing of some of these killers are astounding.
Be ready for a tight stomach and the realistic idea that serial killers, about 100 of them are active in every part of the United States, some killing for years until they are caught, died, or were arrested. If you think this job has no effect on the strongest of men...after this read, you'll think again..." - Amazon
The Anatomy Of Motive by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker
If there was ever a question that criminal psychology books seek the answer to, it has to be "Why?" Why do arsonists set fire? Why do carjackers steal cars? Why do killers kill, and how do killers choose their targets? Why do some become violent, while others remain peaceful?
Mindhunter author John E. Douglas wows readers again—this time, by answering the question on everyone's' minds. The Anatomy Of Motive offers a fascinating look into the mind of a criminal profiler as they figure out what made a violent criminal act.
This book shows fascinating tales of men who snap, killers who kill, and what was the buildup that drove them over the edge. All of it's written in that pulse-pounding style of a true crime book you just can't put down.
"Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand criminal profiling. Especially eery because Douglas' analysis of Timothy McVeigh, who set off the Oklahoma bomb exactly matches the personality of Anders Breivik, who bombed and shot 84 people in Norway last year." - GoodReads
The Gates of Janus: Serial Killing and Its Analysis by Ian Brady
Most serial killer studiers already know who Ian Brady is. He's not an FBI profiler; he's one half of the serial killer couple who were responsible for the Moors Murders.
Of all the criminal psychology books written by serial killers, The Gates of Janus remains one of the most well-known out there. In this book, Ian Brady helps investigators dissect murders being committed and gives them insight into what the killer is thinking.
Chilling? Absolutely. Dubious in motive? Possibly, but, you can't really get a better primary source about a killer's mind than a killer himself.
"I hate to say it but this is a fascinating read. I very rarely put it down after I'd started. How often do you get to hear the delusional opinions of one of britains most hated psychopaths? A massive insight into the inner workings of a blatantly disturbed soul." - Goodreads
Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters by Peter Vronsky
Though pop culture might make you think otherwise, serial homicide is not a new thing. It's been around since as long as people have been around—and so has the concept of criminal psychology.
Peter Vronsky takes a historical and clinical look at the phenomenon from the times of Ancient Rome to more recent cases like Ed Kemper. Then, he delivers logic-based theories on what causes people to become a serial murderer based on what he finds.
Heavily researched, filled with interesting stories, and extremely educational, Vronsky's book is great for both true crime fans and psychology fans alike.
"As a connoisseur of true crime nonfiction, I rank this in the top 1% in the genre. Reliance on research and thoughtful examples make it a bona fide omnibus of serial murder, yet due to the literary talents of the author it has the readability of fiction. I haven't found another book like it." - Amazon
The Anatomy of Evil by Michael H. Stone, MD
You might know Michael H. Stone as the host of the Discovery Channel series, Most Evil. He's not just a TV host, though; he's a real psychologist who has studied mass murderers, serial homicides, and other serious criminals.
The Anatomy of Evil is the end result of Stone reading over 600 criminal profiles and compiling a hierarchy of evil traits similar. Over the span of his book, he zeroes in on the two biggest traits that predict violence: narcissism and aggression.
Stone proves his psychology mettle with this book by looking at every single major factor known to contribute to violent crime while making us wonder how much crime we can really prevent.
"I really loved this book. It gives good, detailed information as to what traits may exist that can be interpreted as evil. Being a counselor, I found this book fascinating in the author's attempt to organize the traits and how it relates to "gradations" of evil. He provides incredible case studies and examples of real life persons who have been considered evil and what their lives may have been like that contributed to their acts. Pretty easy read, very interesting!" - Goodreads
Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us by Robert D. Hare, PhD
A lot of criminal psychology books focus on people who have already committed a crime or trying to predict when a crime would happen. Without Conscience takes a different approach by taking a candid look at the world of psychopaths who haven't gotten violent—or just haven't been caught yet.
Dr. Hare points out a salient but terrifying fact in his book: most of us probably wouldn't be able to tell who is a psychopath if we tried. We also wouldn't be able to tell who would be likely to commit a crime without conscience either.
Without Conscience both shows how ignorant we are of people around us and teaches us how to protect ourselves from psychopaths, whether they are violent or not.
"Oh, you gotta read this. Excellent descriptions and explanation of psychological method. Horrifying interviews. I've met these people and you have, too. On the downside, ain't nuthin we can do about it. Except pack heat, maybe." - Goodreads
The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen
Borderline Personality Disorder, narcissism, psychopathy, and autism all have something in common: a lack of empathy. With some cases, a lack of empathy just means that you may be a bit socially awkward or see the world differently from others. With others, it could be a sign of a budding criminal.
Simon Baron-Cohen spent years studying these disorders and came up with a new way of looking at the source of human cruelty. In The Science of Evil, he puts forth the suggestion that a person's propensity towards cruelty may be brain-based.
Surprisingly empathetic and filled with advise on how we can better aberrant behavior, The Science of Evil is one of the few criminal psychology books that really will make you wonder what you honestly know about cruelty.
"I bought this book two days ago and have almost finished it. Compelling look at the biological and environmental reasons behind human cruelty and kindness. Especially positive take on the ability of people who have autism or Asperger's to still act in kind and moral ways, despite lacking a theory of mind. Loving this read." - Goodreads
Dark Dreams: Sexual Violence, Homicide and the Criminal Mind by Roy Hazelwood
Roy Hazelwood is an investigator who made his living investigating horrific sexual crimes, sex-related killings, and seeing things that would make most people sick to their stomach. Over the years, he developed the ability to see how the minds of the people who committed the crimes worked.
Dark Dreams is one of the most popular criminal psychology books to focus on sex-oriented crimes. Hazelwood's tenure at the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit led him to uncover terrible crimes—many of which are featured in this book.
Each case Hazelwood includes shows different elements of a criminal's mind, motive, and thought process. All of them are thought-provoking, and most will make you think twice before you walk alone at night.
"If you want to be disappointed in humanity, look no further. I can only read this book in spurts or else I get very upset with the state of humanity as a whole. The information in this book represents only a small percent of people but the book pulls you in on the gruesome details to the point where you have to have something happy on hand." - Amazon
Why They Do It: Inside the Mind of the White-Collar Criminal by Eugene Soltes
Finally, we're going to take a look at one of the more unusual books to fit this genre. Despite white-collar crime being rampant and causing huge losses to society, most criminal psychology books don't really pay attention to it.
Eugene Soltes decided to turn away from the trend of studying killers, and decided to take a look at the motives that make white collar criminals choose to step over the line of common decency in the name of profit.
From Enron to Tyco, all the way to the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scandal, Soltes takes us on a journey into the world of white-collar crime and the pressures that turn people towards corruption.
"A powerfully compelling (and sobering) book. Indiscretion could happen to any of us. This book tells us why AND helps create awareness of how to stop ourselves from making regretful mistakes (one tip from this book: get others not part of one's insular culture involved in talking through decisions that can impact others - and oneself). Great examples throughout of good people making horribly regretful decisions. I'm very glad I bought this book (both in Audible and Kindle forms)." - Amazon