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.]