My favorite book genre, beyond any doubt, is true crime. Don’t worry, I’m not encouraging criminals to keep committing terrible acts that make engrossing stories. The part of true crime I really enjoy is the detective work- how did the police and investigators find the criminals? What details were missed or discovered along the way? How did the family of the wronged person(s) rebuild their lives in the aftermath?
The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker (one of the best books I’ve ever read) talks about how if you have the ability to imagine a crime, it’s already been committed by someone else. It warns you that criminals are not inhuman monsters like we may want to imagine. No, criminals are people just like us, who move and work and breathe beside us. This isn’t meant to scare you (although it is certainly scary)- this just means that we need to figure out why some people commit acts of deviance. What’s the motive? Is this behavior something you are born with, or something you’ve picked up via your environment and upbringing? It’s the classic nature vs. nurture question.
All of these questions are examined and, in some specific cases, halfway answered in quality true crime novels. Reading them, you get to follow along as more evidence comes to light and one more piece of the puzzle is found. The best true crime novels make you a part of the story. The ones listed below are examples:
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
Crime: Charles Manson & The Manson Family murders
Setting: Late 60s and early 70s California
Why It’s Worth A Read: This book was written by the main prosecutor of Charles Manson and his followers, Vincent Bugliosi. Bugliosi spent countless hours trying to figure out who committed the murders and why they followed Manson’s orders so devotedly; he himself did police work when the police were too busy to take it on. The Manson Family was a cult unlike any that had been seen before, and the motive of the crimes was difficult but entirely necessary for Bugliosi to prove before the judge. Helter Skelter is fast-paced, gruesome, and exciting, especially when Bugliosi goes head-to-head with Manson in the court room.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Crime: Seemingly random murders of the Clutter family
Setting: Kansas, 1959
Why It’s Worth A Read: Some people believe that this book is where the true crime genre originally started. Truman Capote writes with dark precision as he recounts the crime, the history of the criminals involved, and how the small town in Kansas was changed forever. In Cold Blood is also a great example of creative nonfiction; Capote didn’t know every word spoken at the crime scene, but he improvises believable and factually accurate dialogue.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
Crime: Kidnapping and murders of World’s Fair visitors
Setting: Chicago, 1893
Why It’s Worth A Read: Erik Larson masterfully splits this book into two stories: one is that of Daniel H. Burnham, an architect who designed the 1893 World’s Fair; the other is about Dr. H.H. Holmes, a local pharmacist and serial killer. Both men would change Chicago and make history but in vastly different ways. This book is equal parts history and true crime, so you’ll learn a lot about America’s age of immigration, industrialization practices, and economic depression while following the stories.
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search For The Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
Crime: Around 50 serial rapes and murders
Setting: 70s and 80s California
Why It’s Worth A Read: Michelle McNamara wasn’t a police officer or detective: she was a writer who was obsessed with finding a serial killer. Over the years, McNamara gathered information online and on foot about the then unknown man. Unfortunately, McNamara died before her research could be published, so her husband (comedian Patton Oswalt) and friends gathered her extensive work and published it as I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. Spoiler alert: the police arrested the man who is believed to be the Golden State Killer in April 2018, only 2 years after McNamara’s death.
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
Crime: Double murder
Setting: Utah, 1984
Why It’s Worth A Read: The criminals in question were fundamentalist Mormons, an extreme religious sect of Mormonism, who believed that a divine order justified their crimes. Jon Krakauer not only describes the ups and downs of this case, but he also records the history of Mormonism in depth. Chances are you’ll learn something new from this excellently researched book.