The 20 Best True Crime Books of All Time
For those who binge watch true crime shows and podcasts, here's a reading alternative
The macabre is all around us. We walk past homemade monuments for people who died in car accidents. There are guided tours of murder locations. The United States—the country that produces the most serial killers in the world—has an obsession with all things dark and twisted.
If you’re looking to mix things up, consider taking a break from the deluge of true crime podcasts and documentary series and picking up some books from your local independent bookstore or library. I promise these great true crime books will scratch that dark and twisty itch in the back of your mind.
This true crime book has the death of a sex worker, an eccentric antiques dealer, drag queens, and hoodoo. Stylistically, this true crime novel reads like fiction (in the biz, this is called narrative non-fiction). This tale is so wild that the author said, “The only fictional character in the book is the narrator, me, until I catch up with myself midway through the book, I felt that was a legitimate license to take. The book is 99 percent true and 1 percent exaggeration.”
This is a true crime book for those who live for the drama.
I grew up in the Bay Area, so at a young age I knew the CEOs of tech start-ups were criminals and swindlers; something about the way they hypnotize their listeners while promising the dream of convenience. When it news broke that Elizabeth Holmes was being accused of fraud, it was the talk of the whole Bay. When John Carreyrou’s book was released, Holmes’s story was old news for most of us. The trial was all over local news and everyone knew someone in tech eager to spill industry insider tea.
However, Bad Blood presented the information in a new light. This is a thoroughly entertaining read that pieces together the wild and wacky lies Holmes told to pull off her scam for as long as possible. I highly, highly recommend it. Even Roxane Gay is a fan of this one.
If you were once a teen, chances are you read Go Ask Alice by the mysterious anonymous author. The book is about a teenage girl who runs away and becomes addicted to drugs. The selling point was the fact that this story was real, and the book ends on a terrifying cliffhanger that helped it sell millions of copies.
Unmask Alice looks at the sensationalism and events that led to this literary deceit.
Unfortunately, school shootings happen almost daily in the United States, but before the tragedy was so commonplace, there was Columbine. The Columbine high school shooting was so unprecedented that it shocked the nation. This book examines the psyches of the two killers, using insight from forensic psychologists and the killers’ own words.
This is often hard to read but is an interesting examination of how these teens turned into mass murderers.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
As someone who grew up in California, the Golden State Killer was a bit of a whisper that fed my mother’s paranoia. Along with the Zodiac Killer, he was one of many reminders that we should lock all of our doors and windows. How could my mother not be paranoid when 50 sexual assaults and murders occurred just 90 minutes away?
The true crime journalist who wrote this book, Michelle McNamara, died before the completion of the manuscript. Most of the book is written by McNamara and completed by her lead researcher, with an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt—yes, that Patton Oswalt.
This book is a riveting read that describes the Golden State Killer’s escalating violence. If you’re an audiobook reader, listening to this one will have you on the edge of your seat.
Did you know about the U.S.’s first major homicide? Would you be surprised to know that it involves the indigenous community and it was one of the FBI’s first major cases? Well, who’s really surprised?
In the 1920s, the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma became rich overnight when oil was discovered on their land. Mind you, in Oklahoma, this was the Wild West. So when someone started murdering some of the richest Native Americans, corruption was suspected and investigated.
Grann’s book is a fascinating dive into a part of American history that isn’t taught in schools.
Those familiar with American Horror Story remember Evan Peters’ eerie hotel owner who built his establishment to murder people. His character was based on a true story, and that story begins with Daniel H. Burnham, a genius architect, and H. H. Holmes, a doctor who became a vicious murderer.
This book is compelling as it combines the story of these two men during a chaotic time in Chicago’s history. Erik Larson did such a good job writing this book that he’s written a slew of other true crime books, so if you become a fan, there’s more for you to explore.
If you missed the Spike Lee movie based on the memoir, you need to get your hands on a copy of each. It’s the hilariously terrifying true story of a Black cop in Colorado Springs who goes undercover as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The hijinks that ensue seem more like fiction than fact.
In 2015, Chanel Miller was assaulted behind a dumpster while walking home from a party at Stanford. Here’s the thing about Palo Alto: It’s ridiculously safe. It’s full of wealthy families and the folks who attend or teach at Stanford. It’s one of those places where you’ll see mothers pushing strollers alone at night. So to say this assault rocked the community is an understatement.
Know My Name is Chanel Miller’s brave account of the events that changed the trajectory of her life. This book is not for the faint of heart: Miller tackles the sexual assault she experienced as well as the aftermath.
Warning: This book will not teach you how to poison people. Sorry about that.
It’s actually about New York during the height of jazz, and everyone’s getting poisoned. Deborah Blum’s book follows an examiner and a chemist as they figure out why people are dropping like flies in New York City. There are a bunch of accusations, speculations, and tons of murder.
This book scratches the itch for someone who enjoys science, history, and true crime. There’s a little bit of everything for everyone, and it all takes place during one of the most interesting periods in the city that never sleeps.
This is a book with two titles. Originally published in 1999 as Disco Bloodbath: A Fabulous but True Tale of Murder in Clubland, this memoir explores the Manhattan club kid scene before RuPaul’s Drag Race was all the rage. The book follows the murder of a club kid and drug dealer who James St. James was close friends with.
When you’re done with the memoirs, you can check out the movie adaptation, Party Monster, which stars Macaulay Culkin, Seth Green, and Chloë Sevigny.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include one of the most famous serial killers of all time: Jack the Ripper. Okay, kind of, but not really. This book humanizes five of Jack the Ripper’s most famous victims: Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary-Jane were from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden, and Wales, respectively. Writer Hallie Rubenhold was tired of the media’s depiction of these women as “prostitutes” who were trolling the night. After all, that’s the classic “she was asking for it” excuse that the media has been perpetuating since the rise of Abrahamic religions.
Maggie Nelson wrote this memoir to tell the story of her aunt’s untimely death. The story begins in 1969 when Nelson’s aunt was on her way home from college to announce her engagement. She never made it: She was found shot, stabbed, and abandoned by the gates of a cemetery.
This book is part social commentary, exploring America’s cultural fascination with dead white women, and part true crime retelling of events, as well as an exploration of Nelson’s stakes to this tragedy. For the majority of her life, her aunt’s murder went unsolved. This inspired Nelson to create multiple works in an attempt to process the murder that impacted her family to its core. As a result, the book feels more personal than the average true crime novel.
In 2017, Ronan Farrow wrote his famous exposé about Harvey Weinstein, which eventually became Catch and Kill. The title of the book stems from how American Media Inc. (the parent company Weinstein worked for) would respond when they caught wind of a potential story about Weinstein’s sexual misconduct. They would “catch” the story and “kill” it. Clever.
Although there have been more recent developments regarding Weinstein, this book is a detailed account of the scandal. Because of the nature of the allegations, this book does contain content about sexual assault and manipulation, so please read at your own risk.
Would a true crime book list be complete without Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood? Probably not.
This is the classic investigation into the brutal murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. The crime itself felt completely random, and became a source of speculation and fear in the small town. It begins like a classic southern gothic read and then evolves as the piece progresses.
This is a must-read for true crime fans. Plus, it’s fun to imagine Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird) running around with Capote as he wrote this book. For those who don’t know, the two were childhood friends.
This is a bit different from the rest of the bunch. The Pale-Faced Lie reads more like a memoir with true crime elements. David Crow grew up on a Navajo Nation reservation and was raised primarily by his father, who served during World War II. As time passes, David’s father is revealed to be an ex-con involved in an extensive list of crimes.
Instead of focusing on the crimes committed, this true crime book focuses on what it’s like to be raised by a murderer, and how David escaped his father’s grasp.
Selena Quintanilla was an icon for the Mexican-American community who was taken too soon. The famed Tejano singer was tragically murdered on March 31, 1995.
Journalist María Celeste Arrarás dives deep into the murder that shocked the Latin American community in the mid-’90s. For those unfamiliar, Selena was murdered by Yolanda Saldívar—her friend and the president of her fan club.
While Selena’s Secret does a great job of recounting the events that led up to Selena’s death, there is no “secret,” so to speak, in the 1997 book.
“Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother forty whacks / When she saw what she had done / She gave her father forty-one.”
Being turned into a nursery rhyme is one of the most telling signs of societal impact. Lizzie Borden became infamous for the brutal murder of her family. Lizzie is probably one of the most famous female murderers to date. It’s hard to fight the chokehold she’s had on society, especially considering the event took place in 1892.
This book combines legal transcripts, lawyers’ journals, unpublished local reports, and Lizzie’s letters into a gripping, real tale of the infamous murderess.
If you made it to the end of the list, this book is definitely for you. This is for those readers with a voracious appetite for true crime. Rachel Monroe breaks down society’s obsession with true crime by establishing an archetypical narrative pattern: Detective, victim, attorney, and killer. By breaking down the genre’s formulaic approach with a sociological gaze, audiences see a different side of true crime.
(featured image: Shutterstock)
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