Lady Killers

Tori Telfer
Harper Collins Publishers
October 10, 2017
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Lady Killers is for anyone who treats themselves to the occasional morbid indulgence. It plugs a lot of the gaps traditionally left out of roundups of history’s most brutal murderers.

The introduction does a very good job of explaining exactly why this book needed to be written, and it will ring true for anyone with a passing interest in the facts behind serial killers. Despite being at least as fascinating as their male counterparts, female serial killers are far too often ignored, their crimes diminished, and on occasion, even fetishised. While reading the introduction to Lady Killers, I was reminded of a podcast that described a list of brutal murderers as the “baddest babes” because they were women.

This book tells the true stories of some very dark women. It’s not one for the faint of heart. But anyone interested in the psychology behind killers and the circumstances of their crimes will find this book a valuable asset in their collection. It covers fourteen of history’s most bloodthirsty women, from the iconic and well-known to some who you may never have heard of. It approaches each account seriously and as accurately as possible, acknowledging the legends that have sprung up around some killers and actively seeking out the truth.

For instance, in the account of the infamous Erzsébet (often known as Elizabeth) Báthory, the book strips away the myths about her and gives you reliable, documented information. Báthory is famously considered one of history’s “vampires,” who believed that bathing in blood would preserve her youth. There is a folktale that describes how, when viciously beating a slave, she was splashed with blood and noticed how fresh her skin looked afterward. Telfer acknowledges these stories, with their unbelievable level of detail, and nods towards the grimly romantic aspects of them, but leaves them there simply as stories. Her exploration of what parts of the story have been embellished and which are likely to have actually happened is logical and straightforward. I like the way she balanced the rich lore of Báthory with her reality. You still get a good dose of the superstition without getting caught up in the romanticised hype that ultimately detracts from the brutal true story of this violent woman. It’s a grounded examination of a piece of history, and it’s well written, certainly better than the vast majority of stories you’ll find about Báthory anywhere else.

This approach is taken with every killer studied in the book. As well as giving an account of their crimes, Telfer also examines why they are often overlooked in general books about serial killers. She considers the reasons these women are treated like jokes and given cutesy nicknames, despite their brutality. She comments on how Nannie Doss, despite killing half a dozen people, was treated by the press as being a sweet little granny. She explores the reasons that Tillie Klimek, a Polish woman described as “dumpy,” was jailed for murdering her husband, whilst countless other women who were more traditionally attractive had walked free for the same crime.

After Báthory, it gets much easier to separate myth from reality, as journalism and record keeping improves over the decades. Still, every story is fairly well traveled, and Telfer treats each subject as a human being, acknowledging their difficult circumstances, their violent upbringings, or their turbulent mental health. She puts their crimes into context. She doesn’t make these women out to be monsters, but human beings who have done monstrous things.

Lady Killers as a whole explores the diversity of female serial killers, which I think is a valuable part of it. It explores women who kill for personal gain, who kill impulsively, who kill because they are jealous or heartbroken or simply sadistic. Telfer also examines society’s reaction to female killers around the world. This shows a worryingly common trend of sexism regardless of where or when the murders occurred.

Báthory’s extensive crimes provided a perfect opportunity for the men around her to unseat a uniquely powerful woman. The crimes of sisters Raya and Sakina, the first women ever executed for murder in Egypt, were used as an excuse to deny women rights on the grounds that women with the freedom to run businesses and own property would end up like them. Telfer’s book proves how dumb these reactions are. It shows that every woman who committed these crimes was an individual, with her own reasons, her own method and her own story. They are as unique and fascinating and as appalling as any man. She writes with a wry sense of humour that doesn’t undermine the seriousness of the subjects. Telfer can sometimes be quite colloquial in her writing, but generally I found it all very informative and easy to read. Each time I sat down to read, I happily chewed through a couple of chapters in just a brief sitting.

Lady Killers covers some of the most violent women in history. It does it realistically and engagingly, and anyone with a healthy morbid curiosity will want it on their shelf.