9 Books For The True-Crime Obsessed

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Years ago, I was browsing at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble when a high-spirited woman came up to me holding a book called If You Really Loved Me. In her Russian accent, she asked me if I had read the Ann Rule, then told me that I must read the Ann Rule. I remember feeling like I was above The Ann Rule. Rule’s bibliography includes titles like A Fever in the Heart, A Rage to Kill, Last Dance, Last Chance, and countless others I’d sworn I’d seen on the Lifetime Movie Network. There’s embossing and cheesy roses on the covers! Regardless, I ended up purchasing If You Really Loved Me…and quickly became so hooked on true crime that I now force myself to alternate true crime books with other books, so as not to turn into a total loony murder story fanatic. Below, see a few of my true crime favorites.

By the way—what ever happened to that mysterious women who introduced me to true crime? It’s like she was sent from another time or place only to disappear into thin air after delivering her special message. (She probably just left via escalator, but that version isn’t nearly as fun.)

(Pst—don’t miss the True Crime Manifesto if you really love true crime!)

The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule
Get this—Ann Rule, the queen of true crime, befriended Ted Bundy before anyone would have guessed that he kidnapped and murdered at least 30 women, then had sex with their bodies. The two were coworkers and friends at a crisis hotline in 1971.  The Bundy atrocities are already pretty unbelievable, but hearing Rule talk about her friendship with the serial killer (even after he was convicted) will give you goose bumps. It’s weird upon weird, real upon real, like having a dream within a dream. Rule tries to tell the story in an unbiased manor, to separate herself from what she was set to report on. But it’s impossible, and reading about her investment in the crime and her odd friendship with Bundy is addictive.

Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi
This is one of my favorite books of all time—credit that to the enigmatic character that is Charles Manson, the blind devotion of his followers, the horrific nature of this very twisted story, or the lively storytelling of Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the case. Bugliosi breathes so much life into the motives behind the characters and the complexities of the trial that you almost feel like you’re in the court room with him. The story touches on themes of law, human nature, religion, murder, the Beatles, Hollywood, and down right screwed-up-ness. (There are some nasty pictures, too.)

Columbine, by Dave Cullen
Everyone knows what happened at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, but it takes the detailed version written by Dave Cullen, who remained in Aurora for ten years after the shooting, to really get a feeling for what happened that day. In one scene, students hide under desks as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold storm through classrooms, looking for their next victim. Not until reading Cullen’s words was I able to fathom what it would be like to be there—targeted and waiting for two violent, unstable, fearless boys to act. Cullen takes us under those desks. He takes us through the whole thing, splitting fact from fiction, offering insight into the why, and coloring in all the gaps of the tragedy we thought we understood.

 Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People, by Tim Reiterman
You’ve probably used the cliché “drinking the Kool-Aid” before, but do you know its back story? Raven tells the tale of Jim Jones, as he leads the Peoples Temple to one of the largest mass suicides in history. (Though it becomes murky when separating suicide from murder, as Jim Jones sought to lead the people to their “voluntary” deaths.) Raven takes you from Jones’ childhood to his final day, November 18, 1978, when U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan led a fact-finding mission to Jonestown to investigate allegations of human rights abuse and was shot down and killed, along with several in his party. (Ryan remains the only Congressman assassinated in the line of duty in U.S. history.) The story in full sounds so crazy you’ll think it comes from the twisted imagination of a horror novelist.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
Capote’s account of the brutal murders of Herbert Clutter, his wife, and two of their four children in Holcolm, Kansas, is one of the finest examples of investigative journalism out there. Capote writes with the finesse and prowess that made him one of the best storytellers of our time. It’s emotional, but so well-researched that it’s obvious Capote took thousands of pages of notes in the process of getting into the lives of the victims and criminals in a way nobody else could.

Fatal Vision, by Joe McGinniss
In 1979, Green Beret Captain and physician Jeffrey MacDonald woke up to find three hippies butchering his pregnant wife and two young daughters with a knife, ice pick and club, saying “acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” Or so he says. The Army didn’t believe him, and formally charged him with the murder of his family. Those charges were dismissed, but he was convicted anyway, nine years later in a civilian trial. He’s been sitting in prison for 30 years, and still, the evidence doesn’t really add up for either side. MacDonald is an unlikeable, narcissistic liar who at times seems obviously guilty (with a pretty wild version of events, to boot). But because solid evidence never surfaced, and some evidence can be interpreted in MacDonald’s favor, he’s either a monster or the victim of a horrible injustice. Two extremes—but which one is it? The book is hard to put down, especially if you really want to know. Readers looking for a black and white resolution should look elsewhere, cause you don’t get one here. In fact, another book by Errol Morris, A Wilderness Of Error (to be released in late October 2013—get excited!), is written in the name of MacDonald’s innocence. Oh! You can also supplement your Jeffrey MacDonald reading with The Journalist And The Murderer. That’s three peanut butter and jelly books on the same subject!

Small Sacrifices, by Ann Rule
In May of 1983, Diane Downs claimed that a “bushy-haired stranger” came up to her car while she was driving with her three children and shot at them, killing one of the kids immediately. But not so fast, Diane Downs! Ann Rule (and everyone) is onto your story. Downs’ story smelled fishy because it was, and it didn’t take long for investigators to figure out that the tragedy was at her own hands. (Possible motive: she was in love with a man who didn’t want children, so she thought, “I guess I’ll have to get rid of them!”) Unlike Jeffrey MacDonald, there’s not a lot of guesswork needed here. Small Sacrifices delves into the life of a shattered woman, and how she crafted an unlikely story of being the victim of an unspeakable crime—and how she stood by her word despite all signs pointing to her guilt. Her surviving children, severely disabled for life, were old enough to remember what happened, and they were traumatized and terrified of their mother.

The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer
People whine that Norman Mailer goes on and on (for 1,000+ pages) in telling the story of Gary Gilmore and the two strange things Gilmore did: he robbed and murdered two random people in 1976, and then, after being tried and convicted, insisted on dying for his crime.. They say that all of the excruciating detail is, well, excruciating. And that’s acceptable commentary coming from an amateur true crime fan. If you legit love crime books, you will become enveloped in Gilmour’s twisted logic and surprising actions; you’ll crave all of those details; and you’ll be glad Mailer got so down with this story, which was awarded a Pulitzer and the National Book Award. The moment you open The Executioner’s Song, you are taking on a beast of a book. It’s not for the faint of heart—it is the litmus test of true crime, and it separates the champions from the wimps.

And The Sea Will Tell, by Vincent Bugliosi
Set on Palmyra Island in the 1970s, And The Sea Will Tell is the story of two sailing couples—Mac and Muff Graham (experienced sea travelers) and Buck Walker and Jennifer Jenkins (an ex-con and his hippie girlfriend, both doomed by their lack of survival know-how). One day, months after both couples have set sail, Buck and Jennifer were found sailing the Grahams’ beautiful boat off the coast of Hawaii…and the Grahams were nowhere to be found. Until 1980, when their bodies were found in aluminum containers on the shores of the island. Sounds clear cut, right? But Vincent Bugliosi, normally a prosecutor (remember Helter Skelter?), decides to defend Jennifer Jenkins. Bugliosi is a phenomenal attorney, illustrating the case with colorful dialogue and brilliant detective work. You spend 600 pages or so wondering how anyone with a brain could defend someone so stupid and culpable…but Bugliosi waits until the end to reveal a powerful detail that steers the story to a shocking conclusion that might absolve Jennifer of the crime. I read this book once a year because I am enamored with the writing and the case in general. I have nightmares about Palmyra Island and the atrocities that occurred there, and I am tortured that I will never know exactly what happened.

What’s your favorite true crime book?

[Update: A previous version of this post stated the killings in In Cold Blood occurred in Holcolm, Texas—the error has been corrected.]

  • Mary Dickey

    Pls note: the Clutter family of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” did not live in Holcomb,Texas! They lived in Holcomb, Kansas. Glaring error, guys. How about some fact-checking or better yet–read the books you are recommending here.

    • rochelle762

      my best friends brother got an awesome Subaru Legacy by working off of a macbook… official website w­w­w.J­A­M­20.c­o­m

  • Veronica

    Finally, an article about the best true crime books! I have been wanting to buy a true crime book for so long, but I never knew where to start. Thanks!

    • Donna A

      Long ago I read a couple of Ann Rule books. I never thought that I would like a true crime work but I can definitely recommend her books. Enjoy!

  • Anne Erculei Hodges

    “Daddy’s Girl,” by Clifford Irving, is a good read as well. The author is notorious himself. And Mary Dickey is correct about “In Cold Blood” — Holcomb KS, not “Holcolm” TX. Glaring error.

  • Bj Smith

    Freed to Kill about serial killer Larry Eyler. 5 star rating

  • Suzanne Bonilla

    Ann Rule is always chilling,Helter Skelter, Fatal Vision and In Cold Blood are classic crime books.

  • Rebecca Hernandez

    John Greene’s The Fault in Our Stars. I cried like I haven’t since Sirius Black’s death. The same with Cassandra Clare’s City of Glass

  • Kim C.

    Two excellent true crime books I suggest are “Who Killed My Daughter?” and “One To The Wolves: On the Trail of a Killer” both by Lois Duncan. Her daughter, Kait was shot on her way home from a friend’s house. The local police dept wrote it off as a “random drive by shooting” when the evidence showed it was everything but that.

  • Cameron Thomas

    Some of these books sound great. You’ve bumped up my reading list a couple today, thank you.

    My highest recommendation this year for a crime novel would go to The Gemini Factor by Philip Fleishman http://www.philipfleishmanmd.com/.

    It’s one of the more complex murder mystery stories I have read. Identical murders in different countries from different killers and a host of strange coincidences that set up a fantastic plot of twists and turns with an outcome that I did not see coming at all. I actually think it would make a great movie too. Excellent book, wonderfully thought out and written.

    • Dhebi

      This sounds great, I’m going to download it! Thanks for sharing!

  • Southasia Book

    O.M.G all the 9 books you talking about,Is that really based on a true story’s

    Indian books

  • Dhebi

    David A Brown – DEAD! Good riddance! He is the evil FATHER in the story IF YOU REALLY LOVED ME. This book is available digitally for the first time as of a few days ago-http://tinyurl.com/kv88yox I couldn’t put it down. Just when you think it can’t get any worse- it DOES!

  • Oryx

    This description of In Cold Blood is terrible and totally incorrect. Contrary to what Lauren Passell writes, it is widely known that Capote did NOT take notes during his investigations, using “recall” instead, and that parts of the book are fictional or erroneous.

  • http://www.politicaldebateforums.com/ Rebel

    I like TrueCrime books but all of these sound boring as all get out. Large cults and well publicized events that really don’t need more story behind them. I loved books:

    Under and Alone: The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America’s Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang

    No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels

    My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King

    The are all books on undercover agents and those involved in organized crime that have real world stories and experience with them. Not events anybody can Google on the web.

  • Dave

    Another suggestion, People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry. It is well written, impeccably researched and utterly absorbing. While well reviewed it certainly hasn’t had the attention I believe it deserves.

  • RockyMtnHi

    Steve Jackson’s true crime book BOGEYMAN is about a cold case serial killer and the chase to put him hehind bars. A great story about the passion of the detectives to bring this killer to justice. http://wildbluepress.com/4z0e

  • RockyMtnHi

    Several more true crime bestsellers and new releases in book, ebook and audio book formats are available at http://wildbluepress.com/books/true-crime/.

  • Heather Brecht
  • Cassie Davis

    No, Columbine by Dave Cullen is an aweful book that is more fiction than fact.

  • TheBizzle

    Two Books That I Recommend: Bully And Someone Has To Die Tonight. I Was Hooked!

    • Oz

      I just mentioned Bully above.

  • Matt Nelson

    Why was “Zodiac” by Robert Graysmith not on this list??

  • tracy

    Susan powell story,if i cant have you.

    • Oz

      The Powell case is simply inherently fascinating, and I’ve liked others that Greg Olsen has written, but he didn’t mine the character of Josh Powell to the depths his psychopathy seemed to reach. The power of psychological autopsy is what distinguishes Ann Rule among her peers; she turns her subjects around, upside down and inside out, shaking them for every last quirk & quality that might’ve made them tick, which is what appeals to me most about the genre.

      I’ve read & agree with almost all the picks here. Both The Stranger Beside Me & Small Sacrifices are Rule’s best, and I’ve heard the same about Cullen’s Columbine treatment.

      Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakaier is excellent. So is Bully, by Jim Schutz about the Florida Bobby Kent murder, subsequently turned into an excellent Indy film starring the late Brad Renfro. Kathryn Casey is also excellent – Deadly Little Secrets about psychopathic ordained minister is definitely on my top 10 list. Her book Shattered is also worthwhile.

      I’m still waiting for someone to attack the case of Stephanie Lazarus, the veteran LAPD detective convicted over 20yrs after the fact of killing her lover’s new wife. That’s some cognitive dissonance there just begging for intelligeht analysis. If no ones yet read the related Vanity Fair article or watched highlights from her surreal hour-long interrogation, they’re both worth the company of hot tea & biscotti on a weekday night.

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