Serial killer summer -- A guide to the latest gruesome books by Mary Higgins Clark, Bret Easton Ellis, and Thomas Harris

As summer nears, the best-seller lists are written in blood. Mary Higgins Clark’s Loves Music, Loves to Dance, about a serial killer, is the No. 1 hardcover, and Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs was recently overtaken on the paperback list by another Hannibal Lecter novel, Red Dragon. Lecter and his kindred evil spirits, who notch body counts on their belts for the fun of it, are feeding an unprecedented public appetite for serial-killer books that tease readers with each new horror. So, in anticipation of the most sanguinary season of beach reading in memory, here’s a guide to eight of the most notorious.

Rules of Prey (1989)

Author: John Sandford
Plot: Serial killer stalks Minneapolis
Body Count: Eight
Worst thing killer does to someone: Butchers a partially paralyzed woman
Killer’s method: Beating, stabbing
Killer’s motive: Sheer madness. Merest hint of a mother complex
Nickname: The maddog
Hero: Raffish cop Lucas Davenport
Description of Killer: ”Curly red hair, the beginnings of a double chin, a roundness to the lower belly lips like red worms.”
Gore Scale (1-5): Three skulls
Comments: Davenport is far too portentous for his own good, but this is a great page turner — terrifying in all the right places. Sequels: Shadow Prey, Eyes of Prey. A-

Killer on the Road (1986)

Author: James Ellroy
Plot: Psychotic roams the country, killing at whim
Body Count: Police estimate is 50, but that’s low.
Worst thing killer does to someone: Substitutes Benzedrine for mother’s phenobarbital, driving her to suicide, then drinks her blood
Killer’s method: Varied. Likes axes, guns, and knives.
Killer’s motive: Basic insanity, compounded by a mother problem
Nickname: The Shroud Shifter
Hero: Tormented agent THomas Dusenberry
Description of Killer: Has in his head ”a steel-sharp mental device that…knew…what I needed to keep from being bored.”
Gore Scale (1-5): Three skulls
Comments: Next to Red Dragon and Lambs, this is perhaps the most deeply scary book of them all, guaranteed to induce cold sweats and/or nightmares. A

Loves Music, Loves to Dance (1991)

Author: Mary Higgins Clark
Plot: Killer seeks victims through personal ads
Body Count: Eight
Worst thing killer does to someone: Videotapes a victim’s death
Killer’s Method: Strangulation
Killer’s Motive: Girls wouldn’t dance with him, so he plans to kill 10 — one for each toe
Nickname: Charley
Hero: Intrepid single gal Darcy Scott
Description of Killer: ”His eyes were glittering, dark, empty holes.”
Gore Scale: One skull
Comments: A tepid, truly genteel portrait of the scary single life in New York that comes off as a nerveless version of the movie Sea of Love. D

Slob (1987)

Author: Rex Miller
Plot: 450-pound Vietnam vet becomes killing machine.
Body Count: 29, plus 450 before book begins
Worst thing killer does to someone: Removes and cannibalizes a heart
Killer’s method: Garroting; sheer heft
Killer’s motive: He was abused as a child
Nickname: Chaingang
Hero: Recovering alcoholic cop Jack Eichord
Description of killer: ”A roaring rhino-sized freight train of death”
Gore scale: Five skulls
Comments: Warning: Do not read after eating. Ripe, gory, unapologetically gross introduction to the popular, pulpy Jack Eichord series. B+

American Psycho (1991)

Author: Bret Easton Ellis
Plot: Yuppie obsesses over clothes and dismemberment
Body count: 10 detailed, many others alluded to
Worst thing killer does to somebody: Nails victim to the floor, chews off her left thumb, stabs her, cuts off her tongue
Killers method: Power drills, chain saws, rats, nail guns
Killer’s motive: None
Nickname: None
Hero: None
Description of killer: ”I am wearing pleated trousers by Hugo Boss, a shirt by Joseph Aboud and shoes from Brooks Brothers.”
Gore scale: Five skulls
Comments: Watching the killer cook victim sausage will make the bile rise in your throat — if you can slog through Ellis’ virtually unreadable prose, that is. F

Silence of the Lambs (1988)

Author: Thomas Harris
Plot: FBI trainee pursues serial killer with advice from a cannibal
Body Count: Five
Worst thing killer does: Hannibal Lecter removes the face of a man
Killer’s method: Skinning
Killer’s motive: ”Billy thinks her wants to change. He’s making a girl suit out of real girls”
Nickname: Buffalo Bill
Hero: Tormented agent Clarice Starling
Description of killer: ”A white male, probably under thirty-five and sizable. He’s not a transsexual…He just thinks he is.”
Gore scale: Four skulls
Comments: With its hushed passages of suspense and eerie emotional balancing of Clarice and the two killers in her life, this may be the most frightening novel around. A

Red Dragon (1981)

Author: Thomas Harris
Plot: Investigator uses one serial killer to catch another.
Body Count: Roughly a dozen
Worst thing killer does to someone: Bites the lips off a reporter
Killer’s method: Stabbing, strangulation
Killer’s motive: ”A fantasy life” that ”took him a step beyond Alone.”
Nickname: The Tooth Fairy
Hero: Tormented agent Will Graham
Description of killer: ”What particular body I currently occupy is trivia.”
Gore scale: Four skulls
Comment: After 10 years, it’s a best-seller thanks to Lambs but stands on its own as both a fascinating drama of detection and an addictive psychological horror story. A-

By Reason Of Insanity (1979)

Author: Shane Stevens
Plot: Escaped mental patient goes on a rampage.
Body count: Too many to count (top daily total: 18)
Worst thing killer does to someone: Sticks mother into a wood stove and watches ”her body fry and burn to bleached bone.”
Killer’s method: Stabbing, mutilation
Killer’s motive: Genetics all the way. Mom — and possibly Dad — quite disturbed.
Nickname: Chess Man
Hero: Beleaguered reporter Adam Kenton
Description of killer: ”An authentic monster, with no true feelings except hatred and no real goals except destruction.”
Gore scale: Four skulls
Comments: One of the first, and finest, serial-killer novels. Stevens’ ability to get inside the killer’s head has been surpassed only by Harris. A