The author of Midnight in Peking on masterpieces of true crime writing.
Paul French’s Midnight in Peking tells the true story of an ex-pat’s murder in late 1930s China as WWII looms. This week, he points us to three books “that prove that ‘true crime’ can be among the most compelling literature.”
By Erik Larson
“A great literary true crime book takes you into a place and a time where bad things happened and immerses you completely. Larson skilfully interweaves the true tales of how Chicago staged the 1893 World’s Fair, and how Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer, lured his victims to their death in his elaborately constructed ‘Murder Castle’ during the Fair. Fair to say ‘the best of times, the worst of times.’ Larson’s ability to switch seamlessly between the struggle of Chicago’s boosters to stage a show that would amaze the world and put their city on the map and the horrors occurring just around the corner that showed the dark underbelly of America’s second city is masterful.”
By John Berendt
“No literary true crime work can succeed without those characters that prove that truth is invariably stranger than fiction — Berendt’s accused Savannah antiques dealer Jim Williams was one such. Berendt also got the wonderful drag queen The Lady Chablis to act as his Greek chorus. For success you also need a stunning setting and Savannah delivers marvelously that old Southern Gothic that drips atmosphere along with a hot summer sweat. With Berendt I share that fascination with ‘midnight’ as a concept — that time when good turns to bad, when safety turns to danger. There are few books so good they’ve made me get on a plane, cross the Atlantic, and check into a hotel just to soak up some Savannah humidity for myself!”
By Tobias Jones
“When Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood and, coincidentally, invented the literary true crime genre, he commented that it wasn’t a book about murder but about a town: Holcomb, Kansas. Tobias Jones has written several nonfiction books and then several detective novels all set in, what is obviously, his beloved Italy. Blood on the Altar is the true tale of a teenager from the Italian village of Potenza who went missing in 1993. The case took nearly 20 years to solve, in which time her family faced corrupt church officials, organized crime, and official disinterest. It was only when a housewife, a thousand miles away in England, was brutally murdered that the horrible truth was revealed. Justice was eventually served, but it’s small-town Italy that lingers afterwards.”