Crime is fascinating. At the same time, most people have faith in our legal system. Endless TV shows about noble lawyers—even TV shows about sketchy lawyers—reinforce the idea that while our system might be flawed, it works most of the time. In recent years, however, a string of documentary-style programs have brought to light the failures of that system in fascinating ways. Documentaries like HBO’s Jinx and podcasts like Serial orove we have an intense interest in stories of true crime and miscarriages of justice. The latest program turning us all into armchair investigators is Netflix’s Making a Murderer, a dense documentary, 10 years in the making, exploring the extraordinary case of Steven Avery, a man wrongly convicted of sexual assault who served 18 years in prison, was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2013, announced a $36 million lawsuit—and was promptly convicted of murder in a case that appears to have been badly mishandled at best, and a frame-up at worst.
The series is an incredible achievement, combining exhaustive research, on-the-ground intimacy, and precise journalistic distance. Those who watch it tend to fall down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories—and usually come out of it wanting nothing more than to replicate the experience. If you’re one of them, here are eight more fascinating true crime explorations.
The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
Larson’s investigation into the true—if absolutely bonkers and unbelievable—story of Dr. H. H. Holmes, one of the most prolific serial killers to ever exist. Holmes built a literal “murder house” on the edges of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, complete with soundproofed rooms equipped with various ways to kill, including poison gas and metal-plated walls for incineration. Yes, this actually happened, and Holmes may be responsible for as many as 200 murders. Larson’s novel explores the case in detail, and while Holmes, unlike Avery, is absolutely certainly guilty, it’s still a mesmerizing glimpse into the void.
The Wicked Boy, by Kate Summerscale
Summerscale recreates the setting, people, and circumstances surrounding Robert Coombes and his brother Nathaniel. In 1895, after the boys were observed spending money freely in London, their mother was discovered dead in the house, stabbed to death and badly decomposed. Robert confessed to the crime and showed no remorse, and was judged insane and committed to a notorious madhouse. In Summerscale’s remarkable book, she explores the frenzy surrounding the crime, the heated atmosphere in the air when the boy was convicted, and, most surprisingly, the life that Robert Coombes eventually led. Summerscale brings meticulous research to the true story of one of the most unusual cases in crime history.
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
The original “non-fiction novel” explores the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas, delving into the minds and lives of the victims, the murderers, and the men and women involved in the investigation and prosecution. While no one seriously doubts the police work and court mechanisms in the case, it remains one of the best-researched and best-written works of true crime ever put to paper, and is the work that made Capote a superstar. Even 50 years later, the book is chilling, absorbing, and thrilling.
The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi
If shows like Making a Murderer cause you to believe that the Justice System in America is The Worst, allow us to direct your gaze to Italy. In 1996, author Douglas Preston moved to the countryside outside Florence and became interested in the case of the Monster of Florence, a serial killer responsible for 16 deaths in the area. The sheer insanity of the Italian justice system comes into focus when Preston and local journalist Mario Spezi begin investigating the crimes, and are ultimately accused by the Italian authorities of obstructing justice, accessory to murder, and—in Spezi’s case—of actually being the murderer. Preston was run out of the country and Spezi was imprisoned. A horrifying tale of institutionalized incompetence and malice that anyone will find chilling.
Paperback $14.95 | $16.95
Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi
No one doubts Charles Manson’s guilt in the seven murders he and his “Family” committed in the summer of 1969. But delving into the details of how this man, who seems obviously insane and creepy to us today, gathered a small following of devotees and set them on a bloody path is tense, gripping reality, and Bugliosi—the prosecuting attorney in the case—will give you back at least a little faith in the justice system as he describes his incredible detective work involved in building the case against one of the most notorious monsters of the 20th century.
Paperback $8.99 | $9.99
The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, by John Grisham
Grisham’s first work of non-fiction is perfect for fans of Making a Murderer: In 1988, Ron Williamson, former major league baseball prospect suffering from depression and alcoholism, was convicted of raping and murdering a local cocktail waitress—but as Grisham documents, the incompetent local police and prosecutors more or less constructed the flimsy case against him using every tool of bad police work and overly-agressive prosecution available. Williamson was released in 1999 after—you guessed it—DNA evidence proved his innocence. This book will challenge your faith that everyone in this country is innocent until proven guilty.
Paperback $16.99 | $17.99
Picking Cotton, by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo
In 1984, a man broke into Jennifer Thompson’s apartment and raped her at knifepoint. She later positively identified Ronald Cotton, who denied the charges but was convicted and served more than a decade in jail. In 1995, DNA evidence proved he was innocent. Then something amazing happened: Cotton forgave Thompson, the two became friends, and they wrote this alternating memoir of the incident, a sobering exploration of how emotions and the justice system itself can lead to unjust convictions, even when everyone truly believe they are in the right.