True crime book covers

The 25 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.

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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.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
(Vintage)

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.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
(Vintage)

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.

Unmask Alice by Rich Emerson

Unmask Alice by Rich Emerson
(Benbella Books)

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. 

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Columbine by Dave Cullen
(Twelve)

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

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
(Harper)

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.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
(Vintage)

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.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
(Vintage)

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.

Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth

Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
(Flatiron Books)

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. 

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Know My Name by Chanel Miller
(Penguin Books)

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. 

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum
(Penguin Books)

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.

Party Monster a.k.a. Disco Bloodbath by James St. James

Party Monster aka Disco Bloodbath by James St. James
(Simon & Schuster)

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.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
(Mariner Books)

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. 

The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson

The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
(Graywolf Press)

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.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy To Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow
(Little Brown and Company)

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.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
(Random House)

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.

The Pale-Faced Lie by David Crow

The Pale-Faced Lie by David Crow
(Sandra Jonas Publishing)

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’s Secret by María Celeste Arrarás

Selena’s Secret by María Celeste Arrarás
(Atria Books)

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.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson
(Simon & Schuster)

“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.

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry

Helter Skelter - The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry (W. W. Norton & Company)
(W. W. Norton & Company)

In the Summer of ’69 in Los Angeles, California, several seemingly random, extremely brutal murders were committed, including the Tate-LaBianca murders. Ultimately, these crimes were traced back to the “family” of Charles Manson, a would-be pop singer with ties to The Beach Boys’ drummer, Dennis Wilson.

What motivated Manson’s family to murder in his name? And could Manson be found guilty of the crimes of his followers? In Helter Skelter, the prosecuting attorney in the Manson Family trials, Vincent Bugliosi, shares his firsthand account of attempting to solve the infamous crime spree, as well as figure out how to build a case against him and his accomplices Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and other members of the Manson Family (many of whom still believe in the man’s teachings to this day).

When Bugliosi died in 2015, Helter Skelter had sold more than 7 million copies, making it the bestselling true crime book in history. With Manson constantly up for parole, I think it’s important for everyone to read this book, as the crimes described are so horrific they almost made me give up true crime (and did do so for two years).

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven - A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (Knopf Doubleday)
(Knopf Doubleday)

From the Into Thin Air writer Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven takes readers inside the isolated Fundamentalist Mormon communities where about 40,000 people still practice polygamy in defiance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints established practices and modern-day norms. Krakauer juxtaposes the Church’s history with the Fundamentalist Mormon beliefs that led brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty to commit a double murder in 1984, acting under the belief God mandated them to kill their two victims.

In telling the Lafferty brothers’ story, Krakauer writes a gripping book that gives readers a peek inside the fastest-growing religious group in the world. However, the LDS Church disagrees with many of his takes. After book reviewers, religious writers, and reporters contacted the LDS Church about whether the book was accurate, the Church issued a statement, calling Krakauer’s account “a full-frontal assault on the veracity of the modern Church.”

In 2022, the book was adapted by Hulu into a limited series of the same name.

Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham

Witness for the Defense - The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham
(St. Martin’s Griffin)

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, is a controversial figure, criticized for testifying as an expert witness for the defense in the Ivan the Terrible and Ted Bundy trials. In Witness for the Defense, she describes her experience testifying in Bundy’s Utah trial for the attempted abduction of a young woman, noting she believed he might have been innocent.

However, Loftus’s research on memory has also reduced the number of wrongful convictions. A leading expert in human memory, she has served as an expert witness or consultant in many cases: the McMartin preschool molestation case, the Rodney King beating trials, litigation involving celebrities like Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart, and more some of which had positive consequences on reducing the number of innocent people convicted.

In this book, Loftus describes what led her into this line of research, giving insight into her work as an expert witness on the fallibility of eyewitness accounts.

Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann

Tinseltown - Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood by William J. Mann
(Harper Paperbacks)

Threats of government censorship threatened Hollywood’s rise to prominence after celebrities were involved in a string of headline-grabbing scandals in the 1920s, including the 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor, then-president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, a case that remains unsolved today. Using never-before-released FBI files to reconstruct the story of what happened to Taylor and those who surrounded him, Mann uses the murder as a frame to tell the story of the establishment of the Hollywood studio system and the establishment of the American Hays Office, formed to create a moral code for films and counteract the threat of government censorship.

Tinseltown won the 2015 Edgar Award for Best Fact True Crime.

The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont by Shawn Levy

The Castle on Sunset- Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont by Shawn Levy
(Anchor Books)

“Always a safe haven. Always open,” reads the Château Marmont homepage.

Since the Château Marmont opened in 1927, partly funded by First Lady of Law Mabel Walker Willebrandt (something I did not know before reading this book), it has attracted Hollywood stars, offering them an LA-based Las Vegas hideout to engage in debauchery away from the paparazzi’s watchful eye. In other words, what happens in the Château stays at the Château, so it’s no surprise the hotel is the backdrop for generations of Hollywood gossip and folklore. It’s where Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray slept with Natalie Wood, his 16-year-old star, where Doors frontman Jim Morrison famously swung from balconies, and where John Belushi suffered his fatal overdose. But it’s also where gay celebrities felt comfortable living their truth, the first LA-based of home of many Method actors, and a hideout for celebrities looking to escape an ex.

Savage Appetites by Rachel Monroe

Savage Appetites by Rachel Monroe
(Scribner Book Company)

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: Simon & Schuster / Vintage / Twelve / Flatiron Press / Harper / Random House / Penguin Books / Little Brown & Co. / The Mary Sue)


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Author
A. Mana Nava
Nava was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, they edit economic textbooks by day and write geeky articles for the internet in the evenings. They currently exist on unceded Lenape land aka Brooklyn. (Filipine/a Mexican American)
Author
Rebecca Oliver Kaplan
Rebecca Oliver Kaplan (she/he) is a comics critic and entertainment writer, who's dipping her toes into new types of reporting at The Mary Sue and is stoked. In 2023, he was part of the PanelxPanel comics criticism team honored with an Eisner Award. You can find some more of his writing at Prism Comics, StarTrek.com, Comics Beat, Geek Girl Authority, and in Double Challenge: Being LGBTQ and a Minority, which she co-authored with her wife, Avery Kaplan. Rebecca and her wife live in the California mountains with a herd of cats.