Why are we fascinated by psychopaths?

The rising star of crime fiction, Fiona Cummins on why we like to read about psychopaths.

From crime thriller books to true crime podcasts and documentaries, our fascination with the dark side of the human psyche shows no sign of waning. Here, Fiona Cummins, author of RattleThe Collector and The Neighbour and creator of one of the most frightening serial killers we've come across in decades, considers why we love to read books about psychopaths. 

Take a closer look at the sleeping face on the pillow next to yours.

What lies beneath the smile of the commuter on your morning train, the hospital porter pushing your trolley, the neighbour offering up a cheery wave?

Of the thousands of connections we make every day, the shoulders we brush, the hands we touch, the brief snatches of conversation we exchange, there remains one truth.

Everyone keeps secrets.

And I believe it's this universal certainty that drives our obsession with psychopaths in fiction.

From the shiny malevolence of Gone Girl's Amy Dunne to the grotesque violence of American  Psycho Patrick Bateman, both present a respectable face to the world.

In Dunne's case, it's that of victim and wronged wife while Bateman is a Harvard graduate, has a glamorous fiancée and works as an investment banker on Wall Street.

Behind the scenes, though, both are emotionless killers.

In Bateman's case, the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred, and we are never quite sure if the extreme nature of his depravity is merely wishful thinking. But there is no doubt that both he and Dunne are calculating, manipulative and devoid of empathy behind the façades they so cleverly construct.

How many times have you read in the newspaper about the arrest of a serial killer or spurned lover or the murder-suicide of a family: 'He kept himself to himself.'

'She was quiet, but friendly.'

'They seemed such a happy family.'

The truth is we can never know what happens when the door is shut and the blinds are drawn, or when the darkness descends, blotting out the light, and that is most frightening thing of all.

Of course, it is not just the terrifying notion of monsters disguised as lovers, friends and neighbours that haunt our dreams. There can be no more memorable psychopath in fiction than Dr Hannibal Lecter, the psychiatrist and cannibalistic anti-hero of Thomas Harris' brilliant book The Silence of the Lambs.

With his uncanny ability to delve into the psyche of a trainee FBI agent, Clarice Starling, and the serial killer she is tasked with tracking, he uses his intellect and the personal snippets of information he gleans to simultaneously assist and taunt her.

But what fuels our appetite for these terrifying figures in fiction? What is it within us that hungers for this glimpse into the darkest reaches of our most primal fears? My own début novel Rattle features a killer intent on 'collecting' victims with bone deformities for his family's museum, and the shattering impact it has on the families of the missing children, and the detective investigating the case.

Many readers have commented on how strongly they empathise with those parents in the grip of a scenario more devastating than any of the most sweat-drenching of nightmares.

And that's why I think we search out these stories.

Because it's a way of processing our darkest fears in a space which is safe. It's a way of touching the horror of loss and grief without living it. It's a way of getting as close as we dare to the shadows without stepping out of the light. Because we all fear the faceless killer who has the capacity to deform our contented lives into something twisted and broken. We are both drawn to them, and repelled.

And perhaps we seek out psychopaths for another fundamental reason, so that one day we may recognize them, saving ourselves and those we love, if they ever come knocking at our door.

Fiona Cummins is an award-winning former Daily Mirror show business journalist and a graduate of the Faber Academy Writing A Novel course. She lives in Essex with her family. The Neighbour is her third novel, following Rattle and The Collector.


by Fiona Cummins

Book cover for Rattle

A serial killer to chill your bones.

A gripping and heart-pounding thriller that gives a glimpse into the mind of a psychopath even more terrifying than Hannibal Lecter. If you like Mo Hayder and Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, you’ll love Rattle and The Collector.


He has planned well. He leads two lives. In one, he’s just like anyone else. But in the other he’s the caretaker of his family’s macabre museum.

Now the time has come to add to his collection. He is ready to feed his obsession, and he is on the hunt.

Jakey Frith and Clara Foyle have something in common. They have what he needs.

What begins is a terrifying cat and mouse game between the sinister collector, Jakey’s father and DS Etta Fitzroy, a detective investigating a spate of abductions.

‘It’s a rare debut that has this much polish. Harrowing and horrifying, head and shoulders above most of the competition’ - Val McDermid

The Collector

by Fiona Cummins

Book cover for The Collector

It’s time to go back to the beginning.

A psychopath with a sinister obsession. A troubled teenager training as his apprentice. The search for Clara Foyle – and the detective desperate to find her. From Fiona Cummins, The Collector is the gripping, heart-pounding sequel to Rattle.

‘Cummins is a keeper’ - Lee Child, author of Jack Reacher

‘A crime novel of the very first order’ - David Baldacci, author of The 6:20 Man

Jakey escaped with his life and moved to an Essex seaside town. His rescue was a miracle but his parents know that the Collector is still out there, watching, waiting . . .

Clara, the girl he left behind, dreams of being found. Her mother is falling apart but she will not give up hope.

The Collector has found an apprentice to take over his family’s legacy. But he can’t forget the one that got away and the detective who destroyed his dreams.

DS Etta Fitzroy must hunt him down before his obsession destroys them all.

Perfect for fans of Mo Hayder and Thomas Harris (The Silence of the Lambs).

The Neighbour

by Fiona Cummins

Book cover for The Neighbour

For fans of The Family Across the Street by Nicole Trope and The Cottage by Lisa Stone, The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins is a twisting thriller about a quiet neighbourhood that's hiding a deadly secret.

'Creepy as hell and kept me guessing to the very end' - Ian Rankin

A new home. A new start.

It’s all the Lockwoods want.
And on The Avenue, a leafy street in an Essex town near the sea, it seems possible.
But what if what they want isn’t what they get?

On their moving-in day they arrive to a media frenzy.
A serial killer has struck in the woods behind The Avenue.
The police are investigating.
And the neighbours quite clearly have secrets.

With their dream quickly turning into a nightmare, the Lockwoods are watching everyone.
But who’s watching them?

Praise for Fiona Cummins:

'Trust me - Cummins is a keeper' - Lee Child

'Head and shoulders above the rest' - Val McDermid

'A crime novel of the very first order' - David Baldacci

Dark, intriguing and gripping' - Laura Marshall

'What a storyteller' - Caz Frear

'A nightmarishly addictive read' - CJ Tudor

'Enthralled from beginning to end as each page drips with threat and menace' - Liz Nugent