True crime is all around us, these days. From podcasts to television shows to movies and conventions, it’s practically in the air we breathe. It’s the true crime junkies’ world—we’re all just living in it.
But why do we hunger so powerfully for these stories? Why are we willing to commit hours of our lives to them, whether they appear on the page or on the screen? When it comes to literary true crime, these stories grip us unlike any other genre. For every suspense novel that shocks and awes readers, there are real life stories that make those fictions seem tame and predictable. True crime is a loaded genre: the best authors do not sensationalize violence and human suffering, but they provide context and depth to the crimes they study. In these excellent books, we see how all lives—from the perpetrators and the investigators, to the victims and their families—are profoundly changed by the destruction detailed within.
We’ve rounded up some of our favorites, which cover a wide swathe of crimes highlighting a wide swath of societal implications. If you need to leave the light on when you go to bed after reading, we won’t judge.
Last Call, by Elon Green
In this gripping true crime story about the Last Call Killer, who preyed on New York City’s queer men during the 80s and 90s, Green foregrounds the shamefully forgotten lives of the killer’s known victims. Not only does he consider the profound losses carved out by their murders, but also the role of homophobia in shaping their lives and deaths. Green thoroughly sketches the queer bar scene of the era, ravaged by the AIDS crisis, and the law enforcement indifference that allowed the killer to lure men to their gruesome deaths. In these riveting pages, Green reclaims a time, a place, and a community, weaving together a decades-long forensic investigation with a poignant elegy to murdered men.
The Real Lolita, by Sarah Weinman
Behind every great novel is a shred of truth. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, that shred of truth was a sinister one: the 1948 abduction of 11-year-old Sally Horner, a New Jersey tween who was kidnapped by a pedophile, then held hostage by him for two years. Though Nabokov claimed he wasn’t inspired by Horner’s horrific experience, Weinman argues otherwise, sifting through legal documents, public records, and interviews to suss out what Nabokov knew of Horner’s case, and how he took pains to conceal that knowledge. The Real Lolita is an act of reclamation, restoring Horner to her rightful place in the mythos of Lolita, and an astonishing volume of literary detective work.
Savage Appetites, by Rachel Monroe
For true crime fanatics and Law & Order superfans, Monroe has written a brilliant book where cultural criticism meets sociological survey in a methodical examination of just what it is about murder that obsesses us. Through four case studies, Monroe explores why women in particular are drawn to the grotesque celebrity of true crime, and what those violent delights say about our culture. You’ll never consume true crime the same way again after Savage Appetites.
Party Monste, by James St. James
Originally titled Disco Bloodbath, this is a true account of a murder within a particular subculture: the New York City club kids of the late eighties and early nineties who partied like it was their jobs. Written by one of the most over the top insiders, Party Monster details the highs and lows of the scene—the fashion, the sex, the indulgence, the nasty drug hangovers. The work culminates in the 1997 conviction of a club promoter named Michael Alig, who committed a particularly gruesome crime.
American Fire, by Monica Hesse
Liveright Publishing Corporation
A gripping, fast-paced story with an asset that few true crime books have: no body count. The story of serial arsonists who tore through the economically depressed rural Accomack County, American Fire is more about the good people of the area and the volunteer firefighters working overtime than it is about the villains—but even then, and with no spoilers, the Freudian motivation of the culprits are fascinating.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara
Author Michelle McNamara died suddenly in the process of writing this game-changing investigation of the Golden State Killer. That the book feels triumphant even after tragedy upon tragedy is a testament to McNamara’s skill as a reporter and the determination of her husband (comedian Patton Oswalt) to tie up loose ends and push forward with the publication.
Shot in the Heart, by Mikal Gilmore
Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song told the story of Gary Gilmore, the first murderer to be executed in the U.S. (in 1977) in nearly a decade. That Gary’s younger brother Mikal is a celebrated journalist in his own right makes him the ideal writer to tell the story from a much different perspective, weaving a multigenerational story of dysfunction, abuse, and what drives a person to become a killer.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale
At a time when the job of the detective was fairly new, Inspector Jonathan Whicher was the best of the bunch in Victorian London. When a young child was found dead with a slit throat in 1860, Whicher was brought in to investigate. Unfortunately, his hunch that the child’s family was involved was true, although there was no way for him to prove such a thing at the time. Although his story ends with perceived failure, the clever and tough Whicher became the real life model on whom so many of literature’s best detectives are based.
Columbine, by Dave Cullen
In an age when school shootings take place in America nearly every day, it can become way too easy to tune them out. Dave Cullen’s reportage on the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 is more important now than ever. Even as he details how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold managed to plan and execute a massacre, he is careful to give dignity to all involved—the teachers, the students, their parents.
Blood Will Out, by Walter Kirn
Liveright Publishing Corporation
What happens when a fiction writer encounters a real life Talented Mr. Ripley? Author Walter Kirn takes readers inside his relationship with the man he knew as Clark Rockefeller, a murderer and swindler who presented himself as a scion of one of America’s wealthiest families. Kirn questions why he was so taken in personally by this impostor’s story, even as he lays out all of the clues and evidence that his friend was a con man.
The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Part memoir, part investigation into the murder of a six year old boy in the early nineties, The Fact of a Body explores how our personal experiences shape how we see crimes and the people who perpetrated them. The author’s own experience with sexual abuse is the lens through which she approaches the pedophile and confessed murderer who she’s supposed to help defend in court.
The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum
In the early days of the twentieth century, murdering people with arsenic or cyanide was easy-ish because such poisons were untraceable. That changed in 1918. Deborah Blum’s history of the birth of forensic science in New York City, when a new medical examiner made great strides in toxicology, is a must-read for fans of Jazz Age transgressions with a generous dose of chemistry.
Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments, by Dominick Dunne
No one covered the lifestyles of the rich and infamous better than Dominick Dunne. His novels covered ripped from the headlines gossipy tales of upper class evil, but his Vanity Fair columns still had keen observations with the extra bonus of being fact-checked. Ranging from subjects like O.J. Simpson and the Menendez Brothers, to Claus von Bülow and the man who murdered Dunne’s own daughter, the essays in this collection are unmissable and haunting.
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon
It’s the book that inspired the hit ’90s series. The Wire creator David Simon’s masterpiece finds him embedded with one the busiest police department in the country: the Baltimore homicide squad. With an ear for dialogue like no other, Simon captures the grit of the city, and both the humanity and the fallibility of law enforcement officers as well as the criminals they pursue.
My Dark Places, by James Ellroy
One of the world’s best living crime writers, James Ellroy reveals the personal tragedy from which his obsessions emerged in his most personal book. Ellroy’s mother was murdered in 1958 when he was ten years old, and as an adult in 1994 he teams up with an LAPD officer to find her killer. Even when the murderer appears to be in reach, it’s clear that the chaos he brought to the author’s life remains unresolved.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt
A 1981 shooting and its fallout are the subject of this epic about life and death in the city of Savannah. Rich with the kind of diverse cast of characters you’d find in a novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is as rich in ambience and local color as it is in plot.
Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann
A wonderfully researched, beautifully written history of injustice taken to horrifying lengths. When a string of murders plagued the oil rich Osage Indian nation in the 1920s, the Feds were brought in to investigate. David Grann traces their probe, revealing corruption at every layer of law enforcement and government, and the inhumanity that rampant greed so often breeds.
Devil’s Knot, by Mara Leveritt
They wore black and painted their nails black and listened to Metallica. And in Arkansas in 1993 that was enough (along with a coerced confession from a mentally disabled member of the trio) to convict three semi-rebellious teenagers for the murders of three eight year-olds. Mara Leveritt traces the flaws in the justice system that kept these young men in prison for 18 years, and their ultimate release as adults who were deeply wronged by society.
The Brothers, by Masha Gessen
It isn’t enough to just track the American experience of the two Chechnyan brothers who were responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Journalist and activist Masha Gessen provides context for the actions of the siblings, tracing their lineage through a stream of war-torn countries so that by the time they arrived in America, their (often righteous) anger elevated to unforgivable, murderous levels.
The Blood of Emmett Till, by Timothy B. Tyson
The brutal murder that spawned the Civil Rights movement, the lynching of teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi revealed the depths of racism in America in the 1950s. But Till was more than just a symbol of injustice, and Timothy B. Tyson adds context to his short life.
The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
The setting is the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and the main character is an architect. And the other main character is a serial killer. Erik Larsen’s history would have been fascinating enough had he only recounted the rich technological and cultural moment of the Fair. That there was also a killer on the loose serves as a reminder of the baseness of man even when juxtaposed with the promise of modernity.
People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry
Richard Lloyd Parry’s account of a young British woman who went missing in Tokyo in 2000 is fascinating in its close look into the ways the Japanese justice system works and its exploration of the sinister underbelly of one of the safest cities in the world. He eschews easy answers as to what drives a person to act with such depravity, and instead shows us every angle of the case.
The Red Parts, by Maggie Nelson
Bluets and The Argonauts author Maggie Nelson is best known for her literary nonfiction writing, but her foray into true crime is an accessible and intriguing entry point into her work. As a child, the murder of her aunt by a presumed serial killer haunted her and the rest of her family. When new DNA evidence pins the blame on another suspect, Nelson observes the new trial with the eye of a loving daughter and niece, as well as a deep and skeptical thinker.
Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
The story of the Charles Manson murders and the seemingly wholesome “family” members who were under his deadly spell has permeated popular culture and the American psyche, but here is the definitive guide. As the prosecutor in the Manson trial, Bugliosi has unique insights into just how Manson manipulated his followers to commit gruesome crimes.
The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm
Skip Fatal Vision, the true crime book written by a journalist who was embedded with a man who was ultimately convicted for killing his pregnant wife and their two other children. Instead, get more meta and read ace cultural critic Janet Malcolm’s study of the relationship between the two men in The Journalist and the Murderer. It’s more thrilling than any book about ethics in crime journalism has any right to be.
The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule
The queen of true crime wrote dozens of books, but Ann Rule’s masterpiece is her particularly harrowing debut. In The Stranger Beside Me, Rule describes her personal relationship with a co-worker whom she later realizes is a serial killer: the handsome and charming—and prolific—murderer Ted Bundy.
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
At the top of any best of true crime list must be the book that revolutionized the genre. Capote’s 1966 “nonfiction novel” about the brutal murder of a Kansas family in 1959 is a page-turner that honors the victims even while displaying empathy for the perpetrators.
Kreizman, a former book editor and avid reader who writes frequently about books, has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and more.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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