Have you read The Tell-Tale HeartEdgar Allen Poe, the father of the modern thriller, published this short story in 1843. My daughter is studying it right now as part of her lit degree. It has stood the test of time because of the intriguing character of its narrator.

He’s a cold, rational, calculating killer. But he’s not a psychopath. Why? Because what eventually drives him insane is guilt.

Psychopaths are without conscience. They cannot and do not feel guilty. About anything. Ever. Does this make psychopaths insane? No. But it makes them very dangerous – and fascinating subjects for fiction.

I shared some thoughts on this recently in KILLING FOR FUN AND PROFIT and THE BEAUTIFUL VILLAIN.     

We tend to think of psychopaths as rare, social anomalies. But one person in twenty five has those same narcissistic traits found in the psychopath. That means most of us have met quite a few of them, men and women, in our everyday lives. They could be the source of your love addiction; the man who treated you like a queen and then went to bed with your best friend; the girlfriend who emptied your bank account and disappeared without warning, leaving your whole life in tatters.

Yet they are not unattractive people. On the contrary, they can often charm the birds off the trees. And even after they’ve destroyed your life, it’s still all your fault.

“One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare

My villain in VENOM was inspired by the infamous ‘Bikini Killer’. Charles Sobrajh, a predator with charm to burn, and a man utterly incapable of remorse.

I’ve been comparing notes recently with a wonderful thriller writer, Diane Capri. We’ve both been researching psychopaths for our latest thrillers and the real life psychopaths that inspired them.

Diane is a former lawyer and editor of the Wayne Law Review. She is now on the board of International Thriller Writers, having written six best-selling legal thrillers as well as Don’t Know Jack and Jack in a Box.

I spoke to Diane about the inspiration for her latest thriller, FATAL DISTRACTION.

‘It was inspired in part by a case in my county years ago. Dubbed The Oakland County Child Killer, it was the largest murder investigation in U.S. history at the time and it’s never been closed. We don’t know who this killer was or where he went or even why he stopped killing. But I’ve always believed someone knows. Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

Psychopaths don’t always kill – but they do destroy lives. (Here’s another story here from two days ago: it’s not only what he did that horrifies – it’s how he still made it all her fault.)

Tell us about the psychopaths you’ve known. We’d love to hear the stories of their tell-tale egos.

How did you escape?

About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. susielindau says:

    I am not sure that I have known any! If I did, I escaped by sheer luck!
    That’s great that you two got together to share.

  2. Glenn Starkey says:

    Throughout my years as a police officer, I only met one true psychopath…he was 16 at the time. He murdered his mother and father, poured gasoline over them, set their trailer home afire, then hid and watched from a distance as we responded to the inferno and later investigated the scene upon discovering the bodies. A week later when we arrested him, he talked about the murders as calmly as you or I would discuss the day’s weather. His reason for the murders: His parents told him to stay home rather than go out with friends.

    • Chilling, Glenn. It’s so hard to believe people can behave with such remorselessness. But they do. Thanks for the comment.

    • That is truly scary, Glenn. It defies belief. But that’s exactly what we’re talking about here – someone with no sense of guilt whatever. I wonder if the parents had any sense of what was coming? But then even if they did – what could they do about it …?

  3. I spent many years in law enforcement, so I’ve met many sociopaths and a couple of pychopaths: one similar to commentor above, but it was a young girl who killed both parents.

    Most sociopaths don’t kill people but they are pretty destructive: spreading havoc in their wake, manipulating people, destroying trust, bilking people out of thousands/millions of dollars.

  4. “This American Life” recently aired “The Psychopath Test,” a fascinating program: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/436/the-psychopath-test.


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