Welcome to True Crime Index! Rachel and I are excited you are here, and we are so excited to share some book reviews with you in the coming weeks. For now, we wanted you to get to know us a little better by presenting lists of our top ten true crime books. First up is my (Jesyka’s) list:
- I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara (2018)
I do believe that this book has changed the true crime genre forever. McNamara’s dogged search for the Golden State Killer is all recorded in these pages, as is her personal connection to the case and its victims. Her careful research and careful portrayal of the stories of the victims make this a genre-defining text. McNamara is a large part of the reason why GSK was caught, and it will forever break my heart that she didn’t live to see him “walk into the light.”
2. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1965)
Although true crime texts existed before the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965, for me, this book is the beginning of the true crime genre—and for good reason. The horrific murder of the Clutter’s is poetically told in Capote’s distinctive prose. This book is, of course, not without its controversy: parts of the text (most obviously the ending) are largely fabricated, and Capote’s reputation among the residents in Holocomb was not exactly a positive one (much credit must be given to Harper Lee in this regard—the reputation she built among the locals was what allowed her and Capote to interview the locals). Regardless, it is a beautiful and brutal account of the Clutter murders
3. The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule (1980)
This is a true crime classic, and for good reason. The story of a crime reporter working next to one of the most notorious serial killers in human history, Ted Bundy, and suspecting nothing is one that cannot be beat. Ann Rule is not only a master storyteller, she’s a master memoirist. She tells her own story so beautifully that you cannot help but connect with her.
4. The Lazarus Files: A Cold Case Investigation, Matthew McGough (2019)
This book is so much more than a love triangle gone wrong. It is an indictment of the LAPD and the beyond corrupt police practices that covered up Sheri Rasmussen’s murder by former LAPD officer Stephine Lazarus for 23 years. McGough’s expert research also goes beyond the Rasmussen case to show readers just how far LAPD corruption reaches. This is a must read
5. Burned: A Story of Murder and the Crime that Wasn’t, Edwards Humes (2019)
Arson cases are not ones I usually go for, but this one caught my attention. A mother of three accused of killing her children by setting fire to their home? I wanted to know more. But as Humes outlines in extremely careful detail, nothing in this case is as it seems. Although the mother Jo Ann Parks was convicted of the crime and still sits in prison to this day (she just had her life without parole sentence commuted to 27 years to life), Humes makes it clear that Parks was wrongfully convicted based on faulty fire pattern analysis.
Humes goes beyond the Park’s case to discuss the California Innocence Project (who represents Parks) as well as the inadequacies of burn patten analysis and arson investigation. This is the part of the book that I loved the most: Humes convincingly argues that the only reliable and legitimately scientific form of evidence is DNA. So that means forget about fingerprint analysis, arson investigation, blood splatter analysis, and fibre analysis. Humes argues that none of these have any legitimate scientific basis. It’s a brilliant argument and it has changed the way I view forensic science.
6. Savage Appetites: Four Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, Rachel Monroe (2019)
This is another genre-bender: Monroe wonders why women are so fascinated with true crime through the stories of 4 very different women who are connected to true crime in different ways. These women include a 1940’s heiress who created dollhouse crime scenes, a woman who moved into Sharon Tate’s guesthouse after the Mason murders occurred, a woman who fell in love with and married Damien Echol’s of the West Memphis Three and then assisted in his release from death row, and a young woman who, after becoming involved in the dark internet fandom of the Columbine killers, plans a shooting of her own.
Through these stories, Monroe deals with some of the biggest moments in American crime: The creation of forensic science, the Satanic Panic, the rise of the school shooter, and the beginning of online, armchair detectives. This book forced me to ask myself some questions about my own interest in true crime, and why so many women around me are fascinated by it. This brilliant book leaves no stone unturned.
7. The Grim Sleeper, Christine Pelisek (2017)
As my PhD research involves renderings of L.A. by Los Angeles authors, this book was of particular interest to me. Pelisek goes on a dark journey to tell the stories of the victims of the Grim Sleeper, a serial killer who targeted black women in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s and late 2000s. In 2008, Pelisek was a journalist working at L.A. Weekly when she broke the story that a serial killer who had murdered women in the 1980’s had killed again in 2007. Pelisek exposed not only the connection between the 1980s cases and the 2007 case, but the ineffective and corrupt investigation done by the LAPD. She also discusses larger issues within the city of Los Angeles itself and the treatment of South Central by the municipal government of Los Angeles as well as the LAPD. This is ground-breaking journalistic work!
8. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, Casey Cep (2019)
This book is part true crime, part biography on Harper Lee. Cep tells the story of a serial killer Reverend Willie Maxwell while chronicling the book Harper Lee was writing about Maxwell. Lee watched in court while Maxwell was found not guilty for crimes he so obviously committed. Lee never finished her book on Maxwell, and Cep explains why through her portrait of Lee. If you are a true crime fan, or an American literature fan, this book is for you!
10. Columbine, Dave Cullen (2009)
A lot of books have been written about the (many) school shootings that have occurred in the United States, and I have read most of them. This book is the best of them all. Cullen spent 19 years researching and writing this book. He tells the story of not only what occurred in Columbine High School on April 20th, 1999, but what occurred in the shooters lives prior to the shooting. He spends the majority of the book discussing the aftermath of this shooting, interviewing survivors and victims’ families. He also addresses the most complex question of all the questions associated with this shooting and the many shootings that followed, which is why. This is a thorough and sensitive account of a tragedy that has been misrepresented many times.