American Serial Killers by Peter Vronsky

When I saw that Peter Vronsky had published another book, I couldn’t wait to read it. I had read his previous book Sons of Cain (2018) and found its overall argument compelling and original. Sons of Cain did an excellent job of not only drawing a thread between some of the earliest serial killings known in human history and some more contemporary and better-known serial killings, it also made a solid argument about the potential ways contemporary killers could have been affected by world wars. When I opened Vronsky’s latest book, American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years 1950-2000 (Penguin Random House, 2020) I expected to see some of the same types of argumentation. There is some of that argumentation present, but it is a bit underdeveloped.

If you are someone who is looking to gain knowledge about serial killings that occurred between 1950-2000 in the United States, this book is for you. Vronsky is an extremely knowledgeable historian, and no detail is spared. Vronsky goes through the details of the killings committed by all the infamous killers we have come to know: Jeffery Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, Arthur Shawcross, Edmund Kemper, Richard Ramirez, and Dean Corll, to name a few. He intersperses the summary of these cases with medical, sociological, forensic, and academic data, which helps to ground these cases in their time period. Because he goes through all the cases in chronological order, he creates a useful timeline of the “golden age” of serial killing, attempting to explain why, during this particular time in history, there were so many serial killers.

Here at True Crime Index, we are most interested in true crime narratives that are victim/survivor-focused and victim/survivor-centered. That doesn’t mean that we don’t think other types of narratives are important for the genre—they certainly have their place and deserve serious consideration. Where we tend to diverge with texts of this nature is when all the gory details of the crimes are summarized in a sensationalistic manner with seemingly no purpose. We are of the mindset that if you must summarize details of crimes that are already very well known, there should be a reason for doing so. That reason may be to study an aspect of the crime/offender, to attempt to solve a case that is cold, or to make a larger argument about that particular time in serial killing history. These are all valuable pursuits, and in Vronsky’s last book, Sons of Cain, I really didn’t mind having to re-read the horrors that are Ted Bundy’s crimes because a larger, extremely important point was being made. I did not always get that sense with American Serial Killers.

At the beginning of the text, Vronsky goes through some extremely interesting and eye-opening academic data. If you are looking for hard data on contemporary serial killers, this is a great place to get it. Vronsky has an incredible ability as a writer and historian to turn this data into a compelling story. But when Vronsky begins to create his timeline of case summaries, the thread of this data and therefore his larger argument are somewhat lost in the gory details. He certainly reflects on theories of psychopathy and theories from criminologists like Steve Egger and social critics like Mark Seltzer in between the summarizing of these crimes, but the extent to which this is done does not come close to equaling or justifying the immense amount of detail that is given about the perpetrator and crime. I, like most true crime readers, have read the details of these infamous crimes many times over. There are no shortage of books, podcasts, and Netflix documentaries that explain over and over again what was done by these killers, and what their lives were like. There is, however, significantly less media that focuses on the victims/survivors. This is not to say that we shouldn’t study violent crimes and those who perpetuate them: we must. It is essential that we understand why serial killers do what they do. Vronsky is a proponent of this, and I have nothing but respect for that desire. This is why I was so surprised to see that the majority of this book is concerned with rehashing the details—as opposed to attempting to make sense of—the crimes.

Vronsky begins to make an argument in his book about post-war men’s magazines, also known as the “sweats” that were openly sold on newsstands from the 1940s to the 1970s. These magazines depicted women being tortured, bound, and enslaved. Some even printed images from crimes scenes. Vronsky wonders how certain killers may have been affected by the images they found in those magazines and in fact he dedicates a section of his book to transcripts from an interview done with Dennis Rader wherein Rader explains the effect they had on him. This is a fascinating line of questioning, and I wish this argument was more developed within the book. As Vronsky gets into his summaries of serial killings that occurred in the 70’s and beyond, the thread of that argument is lost. Of course, as those types of men’s magazines became a thing of the past, less and less killers would have consumed them. However, Vronsky is asking larger questions about the serial killer “script”, or, in other words, he wonders what these men had absorbed through the media and other avenues that then turn into fantasies that they attempt to live through their crimes. This is an idea he poses early on in the book that never really comes to fruition. As a reader, I was looking for much more of this type of questioning and much less summary on the killers and crimes themselves.

If you are looking for details of serial killings that occurred between 1950-2000, Vronsky’s American Serial Killings is the book to read. If you are looking for a text that goes beyond the “what” and the “how” in a significant way, Sons of Cain will be much more your speed.

About the writer:

Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature.

A copy of this proof was graciously provided to True Crime Index from Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.

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