Book Review: Lady Killers: A Compendium by Tori Telfer

cover for lady killers
© Harper Perennial, 2017.


“Inspired by author Tori Telfer’s Jezebel column “Lady Killers,” this thrilling and entertaining compendium investigates female serial killers and their crimes through the ages.

When you think of serial killers throughout history, the names that come to mind are ones like Jack the Ripper, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy. But what about Tillie Klimek, Moulay Hassan, Kate Bender? The narrative we’re comfortable with is the one where women are the victims of violent crime, not the perpetrators. In fact, serial killers are thought to be so universally, overwhelmingly male that in 1998, FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood infamously declared in a homicide conference, “There are no female serial killers.”

Lady Killers, based on the popular online series that appeared on Jezebel and The Hairpin, disputes that claim and offers fourteen gruesome examples as evidence. Though largely forgotten by history, female serial killers such as Erzsébet Báthory, Nannie Doss, Mary Ann Cotton, and Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova rival their male counterparts in cunning, cruelty, and appetite for destruction.

Each chapter explores the crimes and history of a different subject and then proceeds to unpack her legacy and her portrayal in the media, as well as the stereotypes and sexist clichés that inevitably surround her. The first book to examine female serial killers through a feminist lens with a witty and dryly humorous tone, Lady Killers dismisses easy explanations (she was hormonal, she did it for love, a man made her do it) and tired tropes (she was a femme fatale, a black widow, a witch), delving into the complex reality of female aggression and predation. Featuring 14 illustrations from Dame Darcy, Lady Killers is a bloodcurdling, insightful, and irresistible journey into the heart of darkness.” (Source: Goodreads)


Lady Killers: A Compendium by Tori Telfer is a thrilling, devilish ride through the history of female serial killers – some well-known, others not so much. In this fast paced, narrative telling of true crime, Telfer takes readers on a delightfully wicked ride from as early as the thirteenth century to as recent as the 1950s. Coupled with alluring and sometimes disturbing drawings by Dame Darcy, Lady Killers is easily one of my favorite reads so far this year.

Telfer’s snark plays a vital role for readers delving into the deepest, darkest areas of the human heart – or lack thereof. In a way, it serves to mock the things these vile women have done in there lives, providing readers with a lighter atmosphere that contrasts starkly with the content of this book. For this, I am thankful. Overall, it doesn’t detract too much from the murderesses themselves, which makes for a pleasant reading experience.

It is obvious, through numerous footnotes and citing of sources, that Telfer has spent an immense amount of time researching her subjects. To this, I must also credit the author. There is only one instant where a fact presented was decidedly false, but it could have been a mistype and later edited. Keeping in mind that this was an uncorrected proof, I chose not to let this single fallacy regarding the Bloody Benders from preventing my enjoyment of this book. (In fact, it does not change my rating at all for the aforementioned reason.) Oddly enough, I actually have a very dear friend of fifteen years who is a descendent of the Benders, and it is because of her sharing this aspect of her family history with me that I was able to catch this error. A quick search on Google and a preview that allowed me to view the quoted source confirmed this as well as providing me with what I needed to know that this fallacy may have simply been an error not yet addressed in proofing.

Telfer’s pacing is perfect. She doesn’t spend to long on any of the subjects, instead following a consistent manner of introducing the criminal, telling us her past, wether it be the murderess’s childhood, a traumatic event that twisted her beyond redemption, or simply being a bad apple from the start. She follows this with a log of the woman’s crimes, produced in hauntingly beautiful prose, providing little known insight into the depths of depravity that engulfed her subjects. Concluding with their fates, readers are given a glimpse into the life, from beginning to end, of women who kill.

Given my love of crime, both fiction and non-fiction, there are a few things within Lady Killers that bother me and thus affected my rating. Most notably is the fact that Telfer does not divulge this collection of true horror stories in chronological order. In fact, I am not able to detect a pattern in this compendium. She begins strongly with one of the most well-known serial killers in history and ends with a French marquise while covering more modern women between these two.

Simultaneously, there is little variation in the manners by which crimes are committed. While there are a few women within these pages that brutally murdered their victims, the majority of women Telfer introduces to readers committed their crimes in the same way: poisoning. Most commonly, arsenic. I do appreciate the nod to and mention of Arsenic and Old Lace made in one of the chapters, especially since, as part of my high school drama club, we performed a child-friendly parody entitled Larceny and Old Lace.

Nonetheless, Lady Killers: A Compendium by Tori Telfer is an insightful read into the lives of twisted women. Women who felt the need to kill those closest to them. Riddled with immoral crimes from adultery to infanticide, Telfer takes readers on a dark journey through the past of women immortalized by their nefarious deeds.

I would like to thank Edelweiss and the publisher for providing me with a free e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 💀💀💀💀

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