Monday, March 26, 2012


Really Good Books About Real Murder

If you missed our compilation of really good books about fake murder, you can catch up here. Before everyone asks "what about The Devil in the White City?" I'm going to put it out there: for some reason, it was not my favorite. I apologize! I think I've read the first thirty pages eight times. Everyone else loves it, so you should read it.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, Haruki Murakami – This is one of those odd books you find yourself constantly pushing on others, then stumbling when you're asked about the subject matter. "Oh, it's a bunch of commentary-free interviews with the victims and perpetrators of the 1995 sarin attacks by Aum Shinrikyo. And they all sound very similar, but it's weirdly hypnotic and troubling and brilliant. You'll ... love it?"

Fatal Vision, Joe McGinniss/The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm – Long story short: man murders family (he totally did!), Joe McGinniss is hired to write a book about how he didn't do it, Joe McGinniss spends time with the murderer and his defense attorneys, becomes convinced of his guilt, writes book accordingly (that would be Fatal Vision), is sued by the murderer in question, settles out of court. Janet Malcolm turns entire saga into a brilliant meditation on the inherent dishonesty of journalism. Read 'em both, in that order.

Columbine, Dave Cullen – It's a masterpiece. It's also a tribute to what can be achieved if a writer can step aside from the weird narratives we construct around any major societal event and just learn from the verifiable information at hand. I cannot say enough positive things about this book.

Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi – Oh, this one. Personally, I think he's too hard on some of Manson's minions, but it's still the definitive account, and absolutely gripping.

A Death in White Bear Lake, Barry Siegel – The loathsome woman who committed the titular crime is, by all accounts, alive and well and living in Minnesota. If you read it, you will have to talk yourself out of making a vigilante road trip. Might be best to avoid the book entirely, really. An incredible example of a successful cold case.

The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen By Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, ed. Klee, Dressen, and Riess – Completely horrifying, and brilliantly compiled. Recommended for anyone who doesn't think they have the stomach for all nine and a half hours of Lanzmann's Shoah. You should definitely watch Shoah, however.

The Stranger Beside Me or Green River, Running Red, Ann Rule – Yes, Ann Rule can be a little tabloid-y. But, for heaven's sake, she worked at a crisis hotline with Ted Bundy. Obviously you want to read this book. As for the latter, I must confess to a certain...yeeesh...fascination? with Gary Leon Ridgway, the Green River Killer. When he finally got picked up from an old DNA hit, no fewer than four people emailed me to say "hey, did you see they caught your guy?" He's not my guy, per se, but I remain obsessed with the idea that he drastically scaled back his murderous ways, for a very long time, because he married this nice middle-aged lady and just wanted to hang out with her at home and watch TV and own a couple of poodles. It's the romantic in me, I guess. Oh, and Neko Case's "Deep Red Bells" is based on Ridgway. Let's move on.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder – Extraordinary book, although, again, not exactly light reading. And, of course, perfect ammunition for the still-unsuccessful campaign to take away Walter Duranty's Pulitzer.

The Maul and the Pear Tree, P.D. James and Thomas Critchley – Would that I could get through a reading list without hawking a book by P.D. James. Alas, she is my spirit animal. A personal favorite in the annals of (extremely old) true crime. What a weird, delightful little book.

Cries Unheard, Gitta Sereny – You may or may not be familiar with the case of Mary Bell, who, at the age of 10, killed two small boys. Sereny has a tough job in making Mary Bell into a sympathetic figure, but I believe she does manage it. Sereny has a passionate interest in the question of evil and personal redemption, which she explored in her better-known book on Albert Speer.

Famous Trials, John Mortimer – This completely random little collection of English murder trivia is utterly engrossing. Keep in mind that it's just cobbled together from the rather more epic Notable British Trials series, which is the spiritual father of...

TruTV's Crime Library – I have wasted ... years ... of my life in here. I regret nothing. Tread lightly, lest you descend into gradual madness and paranoia.

(Shot in the Heart and Wicked Beyond Belief appeared on previous reading lists, and In Cold Blood has obviously already been read by anyone who really cares about murder.)

181 Comments / Post A Comment

Margaret Bristol

Great suggestions! In Cold Blood is an oldie but a goodie too.


@Margaret Bristol I came here to say just that. Where's "In Cold Blood"?


@travelmugs Last paragraph! (Oh, sorry, Nicole; I didn't see your comment before I posted.)


@Verity (Okay, the comment has now disappeared. Ignore me.)

Nicole Cliffe

@Verity HAH. I was editing to discuss "In Cold Blood." Here we go 'round the mulberry bush! xox


@Nicole Cliffe Maybe all edits should be preceded by "I AM GOING TO EDIT THIS POST IN TWO MINUTES. Make any changes you want to now!". It might simplify matters.

Super Nintendo Chalmers

@Nicole Cliffe Green River Killer: A True Detective Story? I RAN to check that out the instant I found out it existed. The author's father was the only detective on the case for YEARS. So interesting!

The Widow Muspratt

@EddieMcCandry I just read this. It was great!


The Devil in the White City: i noticed that just when you get involved with each individual characters story the author switches to another story..@a

The Lady of Shalott

I would also like to suggest "On the Farm" by Stevie Cameron, about Robert Pickton, who killed FORTY-NINE women in Vancouver and fed most of their remains to his pigs. The book is half about the horror that is Pickton, and half about the incompetency and general head-up-ass-ness that characterized the Vancouver Police Department, which allowed him to get away with it for YEARS, because the women he killed were prostitutes and drug addicts.

(N.B.: Yes, I know he was only convicted of six, but he probably killed many, many more than that.) READ THIS BOOK

Deb of last year@twitter

@The Lady of Shalott I just couldn't get into this book and I really wanted to like it. It was just so badly edited. I kept picking out the misspellings and typos and eventually just abandoned it midway.


@The Lady of Shalott I just searched my library's database for that book and it was like, "here is a book about cute baby animals! Are you sure you wouldn't rather read about cute baby animals?"


@tortietabbie In this case, I probably would.


Oh hello, spring/summer reading list. Is anyone else in here as totally fascinated by true crime books as I am? I CAN'T EXPLAIN IT.


@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher I've been a total Cold Case Files junkie since childhood and devoured Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets in about three days as a teenager. So, you are not alone.

I have this wishlist on Amazon just for Kindle books, and every time one of these lists goes up, IT GETS LONGER.

Katie Walsh

@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher I want to print this out and carry it with me always? Is that weird?

Nicole, I have hollered at the TruTv crime library, and I curse you for reminding me of it during the second half of my semester. Now I'll never finish anything!

Hello Dolly

@camanda I have a book list database in my iBook, and these posts just make that list longer & longer. There isn't enough time!


@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher I couldn't log in fast enough to say me! I am! True crime, FBI profiling, forensic stuff, medical examiners, crime-scene collection... all of it. My BF thinks it's hilarious that I can identify Robert Ressler's voice on TV from another room and that I shriek like a fangirl if John Douglas ever pops into a show as a commentator.


@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher I just put in a few hold requests and lots of to-read markers on all the ones the Lexington library had! They didn't have several of them, though :( Kentucky 'pinners true crime book club??? :)


@reallykatie Kentucky Pinners True Crime Book Club! I love it! Which one first? I am all about some Vigilante Road Trips, especially with summer coming up, so maybe White Bear Lake?


@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher dude i'm down! (for the book club...not quite ready to commit to a vigilante road trip...)


@reallykatie Apparently the LexPubLib does not HAVE White Bear Lake! I'm planning on picking up Columbine today and putting hold requests on whatever else I can find. Library, why you gotta suck?


@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher i know! they didn't have the holocaust one either. columbine is on my to-read list on their server but i haven't requested it yet!


@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher I think I respond to everything posted about true crime/serial killers on here, but, OOH ME I DO GIRL. Love this stuff.

Riverman has always been a fave because it's (a) SET IN MY OWN BACKYARD basically, like I have BEEN INSIDE SOME OF THESE HOUSES where they describe Ted Bundy killing these girls, yiiiiiikes and (b) combines two of the most prolific serial killers, so it's like a 2-fer-1.

(ALSO NICOLE HAVE YOU READ THIS, WHAT DID YOU THINK? I'm probably too late commenting to really join the conversation, but.)


H.H. Holmes is possibly the best serial killer.


@Megan Patterson@facebook Such a good book! I am trying to read Thunderstruck right now and I can't get into it. But In the Garden of Beasts was very good! Woooo Erik Larson!

Super Nintendo Chalmers

@josefinastrummer Aw man I loved Thunderstruck as well. Maybe because the second narrative was less about dudes having big dinner parties and smoking cigars and planning things and more about Marconi more-or-less stumbling into the invention of the wireless.


@Megan Patterson@facebook Reading this now... but I keep putting it down and either forgetting where I left it or picking up something else (like The Hunger Games, per a friend's fevered recommendation. I was a bit underwhelmed).

Also, I must know: How are you determining "best serial killer"? What are your criteria? (Absolutely not mocking or judging! I totally do this too!)


@Hellcat Um, his murder hotel, and how he had it all riggedd up so he could kill guests as he pleased? That shit is messed up! I hadn't even heard of him until a few years ago either, when I happened to catch something on the History Channel, and I was like, "WHAAAAAA!?" Especially since like three of his victims are buried here in Toronto.


@Megan Patterson@facebook I think I have that History Channel thing saved in my Netflix queue... I will watch it later!

Oh, Toronto... I assume you're familiar, then, with that Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Oy. And ugh.


@Hellcat I did not live here when that happened, and I was like 10, but yes.


I thought Devil in the White City was sooooo overrated. The architecture parts are boring and I can't stand the narrative style for something that is supposed to be true. It automatically makes me think that he is making everything up. I want footnotes and lots of detail, not a glossy story.

I did read and enjoy "Popular Crime" by Bill James which talks about that case, as well as a lot of others - I have a lot of issues with that book but it's a really enjoyable read and I really enjoy the clear way he writes.


You HAVE to stick with "The Devil in the White City." I read it for book club, and I struggled with the beginning too. I got dangerously close to next book club without reading it before I sat down and devoured most of it in one sitting. Once you get into it, it's totally worth it. I promise.

Nicole Cliffe

@modemgirl I am prepared to give it another shot. Maybe I was in a weird mood?


@Nicole Cliffe No, it is irredeemably terrible. Give up and move on with your life.

(Sorry, @modemgirl!)


@Nicole Cliffe I wasn't crazy about it either! The story's insane, of course, but something about the framing and the writing just didn't grab me. Or it kind of grabbed me, but in that flimsy, intentionally weak way that claws grab toys on those toy-grabbing-claw games, the way where you're like "Unnnnh, is something grabbing me," and it's like "oh, no, sorry, shlllehhhh" as it slips off of your arm.


@melis The writing irritated me, because he does that fake getting into people's heads thing way too much. Like, either write fiction, or stop claiming that you know what the victims were thinking and feeling and doing, okay? That said, I couldn't put it down, but I liked the World Fair stuff way better than the murder stuff!


@modemgirl I've tried it twice, and nope. I've decided that I'm going to follow a rule someone once told me about books: you can stop reading whenever you get to page #100-your age. So, you have to read 90 pages before you give up if you're 10, but only 3 if you're 97. I'm not totally certain I made it to page 70 in Devil in the White City, though.


@Nicole Cliffe Yeah, I just did not like Devil in the White City at all, even though I was pretty interested in the story. Maybe it was just because I read it as I was working on my thesis for my history degree, but every time he would cite some letter or throw out some quote, I would think, "Oh that is interesting, I wonder where he found that, and I wonder what the original context is, AND WHERE IS THE SOURCE CITATION???!!" [Throws book.]


@Ophelia I made it about a third of the way into it before I gave up. The World's Fair stuff was interesting, but the parts about the killer were not tense or gripping at all. Serial killer books usually bore me a lot less than this one did.


@redonion Yeah, you can't really go into narrative nonfiction expecting the same thing as academic nonfiction.


@Nicole Cliffe I never got why people were so crazy about this book. Maybe b/c they don't devour real murder/serial killer/missing persons stuff like I do? It was okay, the guy was totally evil, I just thought the book was kinda boring.


@Megan Patterson@facebook Yeah, and I wouldn't have minded at all except Larson footnoted some things but not others, so I just kept yelling "WHYYYYYY??!!" But then at the time I was neck-deep in and meticulously citing primary source material, so it might just have been a bad time for me to read narrative non-fiction.


@modemgirl I stuck with it, but I agree with Nicole: it just didn't really do it for me to the extent that it seems to have done it for everyone else. It was just okay.

Nicole, cool list. I'm about to do a WWII segment (can you believe I've never read Anne Frank? Seriously!) and I added Good Old Days to my list.

I tried Columbine, and found myself very uncomfortable with it. It was weird. I can't explain it. Maybe I'm just a huge pansy? I was in no special way affected by those killings, but I had a visceral dislike for reading about those boys.


@Nicole Cliffe It's a good story (World Fair! Murder hotel!) but the writing is... not. I also feel if an author's taking so much liberty in re-imagining scenes the end result should be a damn sight more interesting.


@Megan@twitter Yep, it is not the best book ever, and I say that as a proud Chicagoan. It's so repetitive! Which sounds terrible, to complain about how he just keeps killing people and nothing changes? But also the parts with Burnham and the World Fair were stymied too. I couldn't make it through the last 80 or so pages of Devil in the White City. Larson has a great premise but not the writing chops to pull it off.


Oh, I replied to the above thread without seeing this. Glad to see it, I really didn't like Devil in the White City, I'm surprised so many people say it is "interesting" because there are so many more interesting books. I don't like narrative nonfiction at all anyway (except for memoirs, and I'm mostly over those, too). Also I thought the world's fair parts were hella boring and I kept craving more detail about the murder parts. Instead of holding my interest by slowly unfolding pieces of information, I just ended up skipping all the non-gruesome parts and getting distracted.


@Ellie Agree, alas. Respect to those who enjoyed it, but I just could not get into Devil in the White City. In the best true crime books, the nastiness is balanced by the writing, and the thinking behind the writing. With this one I was just left ... blank. And depressed.


as someone who just spent too long on the "Murder" section of Longreads (adding pretty much every article to my readitlater list), this post is pertinent to my interests.

Daisy Razor

Ooh, you already knew the "Deep Red Bells" reference. I think that's my one bit of serial killer trivia.

And wasn't Janet Malcolm also sued by the subject of one of her books? (Oh hello, Wikipedia) Ah, she was, and she won, but it took a decade. So I imagine she had a pretty unique perspective on the author/subject relationship.

Nicole Cliffe

I have a friend who had to change her book to avoid being sued by the same person who sued Malcolm. I would say more, but that muthafucka is LITIGIOUS.


@Daisy Razor I didn't know that about Deep Red Bells! It's always good to know more about Neko Case, and her songs about serial killers. I hope Train from Kansas City isn't about a serial killer...

Daisy Razor

@Nicole Cliffe Ooh, interesting. We read something by Malcolm in college and I remember my professor being like, "So, after all that, we're kind of surprised she's still writing!"

@josefinastrummer I haven't heard anything about that one, but I know Dirty Knife is about her Ukranian ancestors who got lead poisoning and went crazy!


She talks about the experience in this interview (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6073/the-art-of-nonfiction-no-4-janet-malcolm): "One final thought about the lawsuit. It was not pleasant to be sued and it was painful to be pilloried by my fellow journalists, but it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed. It wasn’t life threatening, and it was deeply interesting. It took me out of a sheltered place and threw me into bracingly icy water. What more could a writer want?"


@Daisy Razor Ooh, I had to add the important fact that 'Train from Kansas City' isn't a Neko penned tune. Listen to the Shangri-La's version - it is magnificient!!

Stefanie J@twitter

"has obviously already been read by anyone who really cares about murder." Hahaha! Awesome list, thanks for the recommendations.


True Story by Michael Finkel. Shit is GRIPPING, you guys. Soon to be a major motion picture starring James Franco. Whom I can't stand! But still, great book!


@LDB Thanks for reminding me of that book! I've been meaning to read it. Wasn't there a 48 Hours episode about it? Seriously...truth is stranger - and more horrible - than fiction.


@chevyvan Oh, was there a 48 Hours? I didn't see it. I'm always amazed at how few people have read -- or even heard of -- this book. It's not like it's Proust or anything, but I couldn't stop thinking about it for months after I read it. The story is just insane. But obv In Cold Blood is the best book of all time.


@LDB I know I learned about this story on the tee-vee, and I'm pretty sure it was on 48 Hours or something similar. You can watch a lot of 48hrs episodes online...might be worth a look.

Victo Laszlo

There is a book called Homicde Special by Miles Corwin. It's about the LAPD major case squad over the course of a year. It tracks a handful of cases, including the Robert Blake case. Worth reading.

Amy GvW@twitter

I almost freaked out until I saw that In Cold Blood was actually on here. Thank God.


I don't think I could read that book about the sarin attacks, even though I think it sounds fascinating. I was doing my undergrad study abroad in London at that time, and was TERRIFIED that something like that would happen there.


@Xanthophyllippa I live in NYC and found it very freaky to get on the train after reading Underground. BUT it is a really good book.


I recommend The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale which is about a (still unsolved, drat!) child murder that took place in 1865--and definitely inspired Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (the Constance Kent case that Summerscale's book is about, I mean).


@yeah-elle I found the case really interesting, but the book less so. It's like the author never really picked a side to be on, which makes it hard to finish. And she left out all the interesting stuff that happened after.


@bluestargirl Yeah, this is true. I guess I'm recommending it more as a really interesting murder, more than an interesting book. I did like the narrative style she used, though.


@bluestargirl Same. I actually stopped about three chapters before the end. Like, she couldn't pick a side and then suddenly she's all 'well, OBVIOUSLY it was this person'. Was it?? There was no reveal, and little suspense. Actually, obviously I don't know if it was that person, because I completely lost interest and stopped reading then.

And I got it off someone who read it and said 'meh, that was ok, but I didn't love it, do you want it?'

I found the social/history stuff much more interesting - like, the public/private debate, how investigators were new, etc. But I felt like the book couldn't decide what to be, and I felt weirdly distant from all the people in the house.


@yeah-elle signed in to recommend Mr. Whicher as well. Disclaimer: I listened to it on audiobook, and I feel like I would have given up otherwise. Maybe that's just me, though... true crime FTW.

tiny bookbot

@Craftastrophies The public/private debate and the development of forensic investigation were definitely the best part of that book. But by the end all sense of narrative urgency has been shed.


I heard Vigilante Road Trip at CBGB a few years before it closed. They did an amazing set.


I do care about murder, I do care about murder!


Noooooo, the Crime Library rivals TV Tropes in its timesuck abilities!


I think that adopted kid murdering mom from A Death in White Bear Lake is in jail now. Maybe find another target for that vigilante road trip.

Nicole Cliffe

She's out! (shakes fist)


Whoa I just read she only served 8 years and got out on good behavior. NEVER MIND, SOMEONE GO GET THAT EVIL WOMAN. (Don't get caught though, then I'd feel bad.)

Library Ghost

I second the vote for "Columbine." It really is a masterpiece of contemporary investigative journalism. But, I recommend that you DO NOT listen to it on audiobook. The narrator's voice and reading style makes the already unsettling subject matter doubly disturbing.


@Library Ghost Yes! I was just talking about "Columbine" this weekend after my bf and I saw the movie "We Need to Talk About Kevin."


@Library Ghost That book is so, so incredible. I could not believe all the shit I accepted as fact and never thought about again.

Super Nintendo Chalmers

@tortietabbie I know right? And now I notice that sort of thing all the damn time when it comes to media narratives about people who do horrible things: oh loner, socially awkward, etc.


@Library Ghost Columbine was excellent. As mentioned elsewhere in the comments, Dave Cullen was on the latest episode Julie Klausner's podcast, How Was Your Week? discussing it.

I actually just rewatched Chris Rock's old comedy special Bigger and Blacker, and he had a whole bit about Columbine that basically came to the same conclusions about the falseness of the media narrative that Cullen did, only in an obviously much lighter way.


Reading In Cold Blood right now, and I may continue the murder-read streak after I'm done with it. (I'd much rather read any of these books than The Help, which one of my bookclubmates chose for our next book. I was getting out of the car when she yelled out her choice, which means at least she didn't have to see my face fall. Ughhh, how do I make this less painful, you guys.)

Cat named Virtute

@figwiggin Mysterious illness, mysterious illness!

(or murder, I guess, could be the takeaway here!)


Haruki Murakami is one of my top 3 favourite authors of all time and seeing his name (even in relation to murder) makes my day a lot better. So a) thanks for including him, and b) thanks for making his book the cover pic.


There is some true-crime book about a woman who maybe killed her husband with an axe while her, like, nine kids were asleep (or maybe covering for her?) during the 1800s (maybe?? I am terrible at this game). ANYWAY. If someone can remember the title, it's a great book. And I can't even remember if they convicted her, so no spoilers from me.

Lots of themes about the way women were portrayed in the media at that time, etc. I enjoyed it while retaining none of the identifying information, apparently.


@CrossWord Lizzie Borden? That's all I got for historical axe-wielding lady murderers.


@han It wasn't Lizzie Borden. It was definitely her husband who was murdered (while she "slept" next to him), and he was kind of known around town to have a temper. I am looking at all kinds of murderesses on wikipedia, now, trying to figure this out.


@CrossWord Ahhh now I am too! Is it this lady? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankie_Stewart_Silver There's a book about her, not sure if she had that many kids though.


@CrossWord AHA! http://www.midnightassassin.com/MargaretHossack.html




@CrossWord This one?


Lizzie Borden didn't do it by the way.


For all the Criminal Minds fans, definitely read Mind Hunter by John Douglas!! He's an FBI profiler and super good at writing. He also wrote The Cases That Haunt Us about old, famous cases, which is pretty cool too.
I didn't like Cries Unheard as much as I thought I would--it's a nice read, but maybe better to borrow it? The writing wasn't that engaging, although the topic was great.

Oh, and I'm reading A Dark Adapted Eye per last article's recommendation, and wow! The dynamic between Vera and Faith is fantastic! I love very realistic awkward child portrayals.


@Inkcrafter YES. Read all of his books. Read 'em all!


@Hellcat Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert Ressler is another really awesome book about FBI profiling. I read it when I was way too young and resolved to be a criminal profiler (until I forgot).


@Steph He is awesome. Just last week, I sat in front of my 13-inch laptop watching all six parts of this... while eating out of one of those big giant jars of generic, not-Planter's cheese-balls (as one does):



@Hellcat guess what I'm doing while my boyfriend is out of the house tonight and can't judge me?


@Steph In that case, I will share with you that I found those cheese-balls for a mere five bucks at my local Walgreens! Ha!


I've so wanted to do that, too! From my research, it's not a widespread practice yet. Seems like only the FBI hires profilers, and they only employed 32. So, if you can't get hired by the FBI, you'll have a Psychology/Criminology degree and probably have to hear about people's problems for the rest of your life. Or be a cop. Goody.
Thanks for your suggestion! I'm gonna order it on Amazon.


@Inkcrafter There's a profiler on the Cloo channel (I think... if not, Discovery ID) named Mark Safarik. His show called Killer Instinct and it's a good one; find it if you can.

There's also Homicide Hunter with (not a profiler, but totally could be) Lieutenant Joe Kenda. This man is my new favorite (they all seem to be my favorite) and I hope, hope, hope this show comes back. It is the best.


I don't have a TV, but maybe those things are online or on Netflix! Thanks for the tip.
Ooh, there's an interesting debate in the comments about why American serial killers are usually white! I always thought white victims are more likely to be investigated, and serial killers usually kill within their own race, so serial killers of color aren't noticed as much... but it could be something more interesting.


@Inkcrafter That very thing is discussed (though not too in depth) in the Robert Ressler You Tube link I posted above.

There's actually a show I thought I'd really like... but I don't: Dark Minds on Discovery ID. The host is an investigative journalist whom some of us probably recognize from other true-crime shows, and the profiler is John Kelly. The hook is that they contact a specific but not identified convicted murderer and pick his brain about current/cold investigations. This sounds awesome, right? Well, that killer says nothing that any of us here wouldn't already know! Bah. Still, I have stashed the episodes on my DVR for a boring (a.k.a. hangover-recovery) day.


Ooh! Following my breakup last year, I decided I should avoid all love and romance by reading true crime novels, especially about murders and serial killers! (because the opposite of love is....serial killers?) Love many of the books already mentioned.

I am particularly fond of historical true crime! Here are a few I'd add to the mix:
Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard. It's about the murder of President Garfield, who wasn't killed by the shot, but by arrogant doctors and how Alexander Bell tried to invent the x ray machine to find the bullet.

Also! The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked The Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins. Collins is an NPR contributor and this book is about the advent of tabloid journalism in NYC. This book is fantastic if you like: true crimes, NYC history, or journalism.

Most books by Harold Schecter, who is well known in the true crime genre. The Gentleman's Poison is along the lines of the Paul Collins book- when you could poison people to murder them and NYC history. Deranged and some his others take on more modern serial killers and are gruesome!


@JenandJuice And also! I found this book on my bookshelf recently, but have no recollection of acquiring it but it was excellent: The Restless Sleep by Stacy Horn. All about the Cold Case Squad of NYC.


@JenandJuice logging in to second your rec for Murder of the Century. I read it last summer and really liked it, and this coming from someone who isn't into true crime stuff.


@JenandJuice I recall Harold Schecter's book on Albert Fish to be particularly gruesome... as it would have to be, I guess. I'm thinking ol' A.F. might be one of the worst (best?) in history. So, so, so disgusting.


@PatriciaPepoire Murder of the Century was my gateway into true crime books last summer. I loved reading about NYC then and especially the juxtaposition with all of the journalism wars.

@Hellcat With the exception of Schecter's The Gentleman's Poison (which is incredibly tame really), the Albert Fish book, Deranged, is GRUESOME CITY. Deviant by Schecter as well, is about Ed Gein, the inspiration for Psycho, was also gruesome, but less so than the Albert Fish book. AF was a creeping creeper and definitely one of the best/worst serial killers.


@JenandJuice I just read a book (I guess it would be a graphic novel? I don't know--it's comic book format, which I have so much trouble reading, but bound like a regular book) called My Friend Dahmer, written by a guy who knew Jeffrey Dahmer in junior high and high school. It's not written in a gory, sensationalistic way--just a day-to-day account of a teenage guy who was a friend (not a close one, though; more of a "hang out at lunch" type) of J.D.'s. It's actually pretty interesting.

Pineapple Princess

The Onion Field and The Executioner's Song are both classics!


Oh my goodness how I loved Helter Skelter. Also, college dudes take note: Talking about Charles Manson's music as if he were a normal person and not a murdering cult leader does not make girls want to keep talking to you at parties (seriously, who does that?).

Possibly this is in the Mortimer book, but he's somewhat famous in law school lore for apologizing to a jury during closing statements for how dull the case he'd just presented was. The judge then felt compelled to inform the jury that believe it or not, the purpose of the criminal law was not the personal entertainment of Mr. Mortimer.

Edited to add that The White Album (Didion) has some interesting stuff about the Manson Family if you find yourself getting sucked down that particular rabbit hole. Also check out Sway (Zachary Lazar), which is fictionalized, but features Mick Jagger, Kenneth Anger, and Bobby Beausoleil (another member of the Manson Family)...aaaaand now I sound as weird as that dude I was complaining about so I'm going to stop talking.


@phoebe_weatherfield Helter Skelter, IMO, is one of the best-written true crime books there is... which is not saying that much considering how poorly crafted so many of them are. Ugh, this pisses me off; I'd really like someone intelligent to (re)write about those years-ago murders of Shanda Sharer and also Bobby Kent (the Bully one). The stories were interesting, as were the trials, but the authors of those books were inept.


Posts like this are awesome, but also overwhelming because when am I EVER going to have time to read all these books? You read all these books! WHEN DID YOU DO IT?! HOW?!




Oh, Fatal Vision! Growing up, my parents had friends who lived on the base with Jeffrey Macdonald at the time of the murders. They said they had no doubt that he'd done it - he was cold and creepy underneath the good looks and the charm. And then! In high school, we did a special unit with an SBI agent on forensics, and she brought the evidence from this murder (well, photos and drawings, no clothing or weapons) and we worked through it as if we were solving it. And then I read the book, so this case sort of keeps popping up in my life.

I just finished reading "Cold Blooded Kindness", by Barbara Oakley. It was heavy on the psychology, but the story it was based on was fascinating: Carole Alden was an artist, an animal rescuer, and a mom who murdered her husband (and is suspected of having a hand in the deaths of a few other men in her life). The way her life turns is fascinating, and the murder is as shocking as it was nonsensical. It definitely opened up some interesting ideas for me about good intentions and the true drive behind them.


There's also "My Dark Places," by James Ellroy, which is basically the autobiography of a boy whose mother was murdered around the same time as the Black Dahlia, who became obsessed with both the Black Dahlia (wrote a couple novels around the subject). It's really an amazing book. You start out wondering, jeez, this guy is fucked up! But he's so honest about his misguided youth and his bullying ways that it is really fascinating. How he grows out of it and becomes a writer, still obsessed enough with his mother's murder to reopen the case with a detective, is a great read.


@carolita My Dark Places is a fantastic book. He is brutally honest about himself in a way that is both revolting and admirable. I am kind of obsessed with "Unsolved Mysteries" (the show with Robert Stack) and I loved the part of the book when he talks about Unsolved Mysteries filming a story on his mother's murder, and meeting Robert Stack and goofing around with the actors.


@carolita You've reminded me to read this! I keep hearing about it ... Re: the poor Black Dahlia, I wish there were a solution to her case, so that a definitive book could be written about it.


For some reason my favorite true crime is Victorian-era. I'm reading Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum at the moment. It's not bad, a little slow and scattered, but a good sampling of stories.


@bluestargirl The Professor and the Mad Man has murder, insane asylums, and the OED. Bam!


@SarahP Best book about a dictionary ever!


My Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan, anyone? South Africa under apartheid, a series of hammer murders...

Caroline Sirand

How could this list not include "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer?!?!
Fascinating true crime expose with lots of background on modern Mormonism and Mormon fundamentalism. Rivals "In Cold Blood" in my opinion.


@Caroline Sirand I've been meaning to read this for a while. Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" is one of my favorite books of all time. It is SO GOOD.

Emma Peel

@Caroline Sirand YES! Though it does concern me that most of what I know about Mormonism I learned from that book...

Super Nintendo Chalmers

@M. A. Peel You are ahead of me then. Most of what I know about Mormonism* I learned from reading "A Study in Scarlet."

* i.e., basically nothing


@M. A. Peel Totally. I read it a few months ago and I've been giving Romney the side-eye ever since.

Nicole Cliffe

@Caroline Sirand If you enjoyed it, do NOT miss "No Man Knows My History," which was a big source for Krakauer.


Recently started working through Longform's guide to Skip Hollandsworth. I've only finished the Lost Boys article and OMG!!

Cracked.com has some excellent posts about strange unsolved mysteries, murders, etc.

Also, truecrimediary.com is generally really well-written and you'll be on there for hours.

Emma Peel

@chevyvan YES YES YES YES. ALL OF THE SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH. I spent several months going through his Texas Monthly archives.

My favorite so far: The one about the high-school sweethearts who murdered somebody before going off to a military academy ("Killer Cadets"). Or the football player who murdered his abusive father. Or any of the scandalous society murders. OMG.

Love his work.


Lobster Boy: the bizarre life and brutal death of Grady Stiles, Jr

anyone? anyone?


@meliz [Cough] Maybe... [Cough.]


Please don't use 'spirit animal' unless you have in fact been on a literal spirit journey in a desert, etc, and been assigned PD James as your actual Native American Spirit Animal.

I'm sorry, I'm That Person, I can't help myself.

The nerds tend to like 'patronus' as a substitute, but I can't quite work with that.



Nicole Cliffe

@Craftastrophies I will say "space cowboy" henceforth!


@redheaded&crazie Does this make me a squib?

(Thanks, Nicole. Sorry to be a party pooper.)

Elvis Costello's Spectacles

I picked up Zheng Yi's Scarlet Memorial from the library the other week. It's a really shocking, heartbreaking read, but incredibly compelling.


My library has a copy of Good Old Days! Oh, hello, what I'm doing tonight.


Julie Klausner's awesome How Was Your Week? podcast just had a great interview with the author of Columbine, for ladies who like to read a book then eavesdrop on a compelling conversation about it (ie, me).

Lily Rowan

@ninalander I was going to say that! And am glad I read the whoooole thread before I did.

Chuck Bass

I just logged in to say, I love Underground! It's one of my favorite books of all time.

Super Nintendo Chalmers

More on the sociological examination side is The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America's Dilemma which is a really good, but sad, story about race and class in the wake of a shooting. Sadly relevant given the current Floridian clusterfuck.

Emma Peel

@EddieMcCandry Yes! <3 Kotlowitz.

Super Nintendo Chalmers

@M. A. Peel Yes! I am like: write more things Alex Kotlowitz!


I'm late getting to this post, but this post reminded me of "The Poet and the Murderer" but Simon Worrall. It's got so many fascinating elements- Mormonism, art forgery and murder plots. It's been years since I read it, but I remember really enjoying it.

Fear Biter

@RocketSurgeon Ahhhhh! I can't believe anyone has read this book. I was just wondering whether anyone would mention it. Can I just say that I was the assistant curator of Special Collections at the Jones Library both before and after the purchase of the Dickinson manuscript at the core of this narrative. It is a crazy and compelling story. Worrall glamorized some aspects of the situation in ways I was initially uncomfortable with. However, Dan Lombardo, the curator, is every bit as awesome as he appears in Worrall's depiction. A terrific mentor, who handled a very trying situation with an insane amount of integrity and grace. I was very lucky to have worked with him as long as I did.

Emma Peel

My people!

I have "The Devil's Gentleman" on my to-read list. Anyone read it? Also "The Beautiful Cigar Girl." Why yes, I do love 19th-century true crime.

Super Nintendo Chalmers

@M. A. Peel I am sort of following you around this post now but yes! So interesting! Poison murder? Who even does that?


@M. A. Peel I have read this book and recommended it upthread a ways. It was one of Schecter's more tame true crime books (hello poison is way less gruesome than Albert Fish), but its a good read! Poisoning seems really unthinkably silly as a way to murder someone these days, doesn't it? But in Victorian NYC, it was completely legit! I enjoyed it, but I'd recommend a similar book I liked *slightly* better- Murder of the Century by Paul Collins. It takeses place during the same time in NYC, but juxtaposes a scandalous murder (they never found the head!) with the birth of tabloid journalism.


@M. A. Peel And! And! I haven't read it, but recently added it to my reading list: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, about an English detective and murder investigations in the 1860s. (I too love 19th century true crime!)


For years, I've had an obsession with anything and everything about JonBenet Ramsey. I read everything I could get my hands on and watched everything on TV that came along (though it's calmed down recently because there's not much out there at the moment). Still, to this day, I get all fired up about it when I think too hard about the misinformation and ruined crime scene and weird behavior on both sides... ugh, will it never be solved?

Has anyone read Devil's Knot by Mara Leveritt? It's a few years old at this point, but recent events have pushed it back into the spotlight. It's well-written but some might find it skewed.


@Hellcat JonBenet's dad has a book coming out called The Other Side of Suffering.


@Hellcat Care to venture any opinions on who done it? I haven't followed it super closely, so I'm always interested in what The Obsessed have to say about it.


@chevyvan For a long time, based on what I'd read and despite the police fuckuppery and almost palpable tunnel vision, I really thought Patsy Ramsey had to have had something to do with it, and that John Ramsey had to have known--at least after the deed had been done. But even at the time, I thought it was just so divided; so many things seemed to point right at the Ramseys (and I'm not even talking about just their seemingly weird behavior. I mean, yes, some of it was pretty odd, but thankfully I'm no judge of the "right" way to behave after a loved one is murdered). But then, the things that didn't implicate them really, really didn't. It was like there was no gray area at all.

Then everything became even murkier with more and more information, and some of that from people whose work I was actually a little familiar with and pretty enamored by from what I'd read about non-Ramsey business (Lou Smit, for one, and John Douglas, I think). Add to that the fact that so much literature was so skewed one way or the other; hardly anything I'd read was not biased. It got to the point that I wondered if anything I was reading was something I could flat-out believe 100% (which, I guess, is probably the case for almost everything that is fraught with so much drama).

It was so crazy that, at one point, I remember wondering if my ex's joke about Patsy trading her child to the devil in exchange for cancer remission wasn't just as plausible as anything else I'd heard. Or that I should just Ouija JonBenet and ask her! Oh, I have a feeling it just won't get solved, which can probably be blamed on the cops for "allowing" that whole compromised crime scene, all those people running around in there like that...

That's my longwinded way of saying I have no idea... though my gut still tends toward Patsy, as nasty as that sounds. And I never thought that the nine-year-old (at the time) brother could have done it.


@Hellcat And now I'm off to clean up my own crime scene; it seems the cat has decided to barf exactly dead center underneath my bed... in that oh-so-perfect spot that I simply cannot reach from any angle.


1. I LOVE Helter Skelter and I LOVE Vincent Bugliosi but his best book is "And The Sea Will Tell." Seriously the creepiest murder mystery in the world. When I was reading this I would sit in the parking spot reading it only to go to the gym and read it on the exercise bike and then sit in the car outside the gym reading it. Could not put it down. (I don't think he's too hard on the Manson family criminals. What they did was really terrible.)

2. I really love Gitta Sereny's book "Into That Darkness" about Franz Stangl commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka. Nice to see her get some attention. It's one of my favorite Holocaust books, I actually read it for a class.

3. Another fantastic true murder story is "True Crime" essay by David Grann, published in the New Yorker, collected in his book "The Devil and Sherlock Holmes." To be made into movie by Roman Polanski (hopefully). Everything's connected!


@Ellie Oh, yes, basically everything by David Grann is the best true crime ever written. He's my fave.


I just read a galley from FSG of People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, an incredibly thorough account of the murder of Lucy Blackman, an English hostess who was living in Japan. I think the book is out in the UK already (and I saw there are some copies available on Amazon US).

I really, really enjoyed the book-- particularly the parts that delved into how the Japanese justice system is different from ours (and Britain's) and why those differences exist. I think it's a good read for anyone who liked Underground. It's out this summer in the US! Perfect macabre travel reading?


I've run out of places to put books so now I'm stacking them in front of my shelves, behind the door, inside an old mini fridge (why), under my bed and and yet I still ordered the Columbine book. God damn Amazon marketplace and their $.01 books! Is book hoarding a thing? Because I have it.


@Charlotte It is a thing and I have it, too. Nothing to be done, though my husband keeps suggesting storage. Not helpful. What if I NEED to check something in the collection of James Salter stories I haven't opened for 10 years?


@sudden_eyes YES! This rarely ever happens but a few weeks ago it did! And I was able to find the name Pauline Parker (from the true-crime section of my shelves, in fact!) without all that pesky Googling! It felt somehow victorious!


I read Monsters of Florence a couple of months ago and it was fascinating and terrifying in the weird conspiracy/incompetance of the Italian police. Also if you are interested in Amanda Knox (I'm a little bit obsessed for no real reason) this sheds some really interesting light onto that case as well.


@Steph Monsters of Florence and Columbine added to wish list. This is an informative thread! I love it!


@Steph THANK YOU! I meant to read this, forgot about it, and you've kindly reminded me. Next trip to the library ...


@Steph Yes! Monster of Florence was great...totally forgot about it. I think the prosecutor in the Knox case was the same guy who came up with all of the Satanic Panic accusations in the Monster case, right?


@chevyvan Yeah that guy is a nut. It would be humorous if his crazy-ass theories didn't like, ruin lives.


Also, speaking of Shoah - I haven't watched it (and now kind of don't want to) but I saw The Karski Report, which is a piece from the interviews for it that didn't make it into Shoah, last Friday, and Lanzmann was there to do a "q&a" after. It was totally a clusterfuck, he barely answered any of the questions, was really out of it, and answered his phone twice on microphone, and a lot of people walked out before it ended. I actually got really offended by some of the things Lanzmann said (I am really hard to offend), and then I walked out too.

Katie Aaberg@facebook

I LOVE Murakami, and Underground is an amazing, gripping, horrifying book. PRO TIP: do not read this as your commute book if you ride a subway, especially right after 9-11, because the train will get stopped in the tube under the bay while you are reading and you will have the first panic attack of your life.

tiny bookbot

Bloodlands! Ahhh, I read this. Though it seems very different from the rest of this list (except for the entry by Klee et al), since it's about mass murder. BUT. An exceptional book, and Snyder's intro and conclusion are not to be missed as he talks about the importance of looking at these events as the consequence of real decisions and choices, not just crazy evil (evil decisions, though, for sure), as well as the need to regard the victims as actual people, not just victims/numbers.

I asked for this book for Christmas, which weirded out my mother.


I think I spent over a quarter of my young adult life on crime library. Nice to know I maybe wasn't the only tween obsessed with murder (although I guess tumblr proves that on a daily basis...)!


The Maul and the Pear Tree! I love this one so much, particularly because the murders took place in the early 19th century, and there's no forensic evidence, just a bunch of unreliable witness statements - and yet James and Critchley manage to make the whole thing immediate and terrifying, and have some very plausible theories about what really happened.

Also a big yes on Murakami's Underground, and the Mortimer book on trials is fascinating.

I read both Helter Skelter and In Cold Blood in my teens, in a remote farmhouse, at night, alone. On separate occasions. Clearly I don't learn the first time around.

Dave Cullen@facebook

Thanks for the great post, Nicole, and the kind words about my book (Columbine).

I appreciate all the support in the comments, too. It was very cool meeting Julie Klausner and doing her podcast. What an interesting woman. That was a great afternoon.

(BTW, since there are Julie fans here, she was just nominated for a Comedy Award, which is a viewer's choice, so you can vote online at the Comedy Central site. I don't know if it's kosher to post a link here, so I'll refrain for now, but I can paste it in if you like.)


Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee by Chloe Hooper is so so good.


TruTV . . . I often worry someone at my office will find out how much time I spend on there and start worrying that I'm secretly a murderer. Is that weird?


I have to put a word in here for one of the best books I've ever read: Strange Piece of Paradise, by Terri Jentz. It's actually about an attempted murder, which the author survived and later investigated on her own. But it is totally gripping, and it's an incredibly searing account of misogyny gone lethal. I'm sad that it isn't better known.


@berryline YOU JUST MADE MY DAY. I read a review of that book several years ago and could only ever remember that "paradise" was in the name. I was browsing through the comments on here in hopes that someone would mention it. YAY! Thank you for solving my mystery.


i do a lot of work with prisoners and they are also obsessed with true crime books! prison librarians say they're always first to go. EVERYONE LOVES SORDID CRIME STORIES. everyone.


I have clicked on basically every link in this post and comments, which means that in a few days I'm going to get one of those weird stalky emails from Amazon. "Hey, we heard you were interested in murder? Because we've got some murder books! Just letting you know!"

Jillian King@twitter

The Monster of Florence deserves a spot on this list!

Vanessa Steck@facebook

The Monster of Florence! But also also, From Cradle to Grave, the crazy fucking story of Marybeth Tinning who killed her NINE CHILDREN.


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