“True crime,” or non-fiction, journalistic accounts of actual crimes, are much older than the tabloids. From murder ballads to records of public executions, audiences have always been fascinated by the grisly and gruesome. Despite this history, true crime reportage has only gained acceptance as a legitimate form of journalism within living memory, and even then a lot of it carries the weight of being either tawdry or self-consciously pulp. For many, true crime probes too deeply into the darker corners of the psyche for reasons that seem to end at sensationalism. Even fans of true crime writing often harbor a lingering fear that they “get off” or at the very least over enjoy bad deeds.
While true crime might not be exactly “healthy,” it has proven to be healthy for the wallets of many authors. Ben Hecht, the “Shakespeare of Hollywood,” started out as a Chicago reporter specializing in the Second City’s sins, while writers like Katherine Ramsland and Ann Rule can claim kingdoms in your local bookstore with their small true crime paperbacks. The fact is that blood sells, and if written well, a very bloody book can sell very well indeed.
But what makes a good true crime book? The answer of course depends on what you’re looking for, but despite the various degrees of true crime, the best examples all share a few things in common: an addiction to research and getting the facts right, a predilection towards mood and atmosphere, and the knowledge that a crime’s setting and characters are far more important than the crime itself.
With that in mind, let’s round up the seven best true crime books for your summer displeasure:
1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
Without question, In Cold Blood is the most influential true crime book since the popularization of the genre during the 20th century. It could also be the greatest true crime novel ever. Taking as its subject the 1959 murders of the Clutter family of Kansas, Capote’s account is a gripping look not only into the gothic landscapes of America’s Midwest, but also into the corrupted souls of the killers themselves, the eternal jailbirds Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith. Capote spent six years working on In Cold Blood and in the end created a new genre: the nonfiction novel.
2. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974)
At over 500 pages long, Helter Skelter is a mammoth tome about the so-called Manson murders of 1969. Written by Gentry, a professional writer, and Vincent Bugliosi, the deputy district attorney who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson and other members of his murderous “family,” Helter Skelter presents an in-depth, firsthand account of the case and its cultural impact. After reading it, you’ll probably never listen to The Beatles the same way again.
3. The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule (1980)
Sadly, like medieval peasants, many people today still have the misconception that monsters look like, well, monsters. The case of the serial killer Ted Bundy is Exhibit A of why a handsome face can hide unfathomable evil. Originally published in 1980 and subsequently revised over a 28-year period, The Stranger Beside Me is Rule’s chilling account of Bundy, a man she knew personally before and after the public became aware of his numerous sex murders. Unlike a lot of other true crime books, The Stranger Beside Me is viscerally personal and it forces readers to feel Rule’s disgust at the revelation that an acquaintance and co-worker can be a killer.
4. The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh (1973)
In a 2006 New York Times interview, crime writer James Ellroy claimed that the only book he reads is The Onion Field by the LAPD officer-turned-writer Joseph Wambaugh. It’s not hard to see why, for Wambaugh’s account of the kidnapping of two LAPD officers and the eventual execution of Officer Ian Campbell is terse, tough and haunting like so many of Ellroy’s tales of corruption and cynicism. Made into a film in 1979, The Onion Field and its tragic subject matter not only influenced police procedure (the crime’s starting point, a traffic stop, became an example of what not to do when approaching a vehicle) but also provided a different look at one of America’s most controversial police departments.
5. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003)
While In Cold Blood can make the argument for being the greatest true crime work in history, The Devil in the White City has a case for being the most popular. Told with a wide scope that includes everything Chicago during the late 19th century, Larson’s The Devil in the White City is an exhausting account of the sordid career of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a thoroughgoing conman who became one of America’s first documented serial killers. Born Herman Webster Mudgett in a small village in New Hampshire, Holmes took advantage of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago by building a “Murder Castle” that included elaborately constructed torture chambers, a dissection room and even a crematorium in the city’s Englewood neighborhood. The real shock in The Devil in the White City is Larson’s ability to chronicle all of these events with cold, yet impassioned prose.
6. For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz (2009)
In For the Thrill of It, Chicago is once again thrust into the unfriendly light of scrutiny. In Baatz’s account, the city becomes an unredeemable cesspool full of political corruption, vice and a seemingly unending series of scandalous crimes. While many of these smaller cases will stay with you (I for one cannot forget the case of the man who was kidnapped by a street gang and then castrated before being returned to his home), Baatz’s chief concern is Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who conceived themselves as Nietzschean Übermenschen above the law and thus capable of carrying out the perfect crime without fear of reprisal. On May 21, 1924, Leopold (then 19) and Loeb (then only 18) kidnapped and murdered Robert “Bobby” Franks, the 14-year-old son of a Chicago millionaire. As Baatz shows throughout his account, that senseless murder defined an entire decade.
7. Midnight in Peking by Paul French (2013)
You could not ask for a more glamorous setting: the foreign quarter of old Peking (today’s Beijing). The year is 1937 and the days of European rule in China are quickly coming to an end. By July of that year, the city as well as much of China will belong to the invading Japanese. The crimes of the Second Sino-Japanese War dwarf the unsolved murder of Pamela Werner considerably, and yet French’s book makes the latter crime matter. Calling upon both history and local superstitions, Midnight in Peking turns the mutilation of a pretty and pretty reckless British girl into a statement about the nature of evil. Despite the gulf of decades and the paucity of information regarding the crime, Midnight in Peking comes up with a convincing culprit with disgusting motivations. Warning: This book will turn you off from ever going to soirées with strangers.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.
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