Top Ten True Crime Books

Jesyka’s Picks:

  1. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara 

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

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

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

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

 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

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

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  

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

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.

Rachel’s Picks:

  1. The Five by Hallie Rubenhold (2019)
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The latest and perhaps most important book on the famous series of killings in the summer of 1888 in London, Rubenhold’s The Five upends traditional serial killer narratives by focusing on the—as yet untold—lives of the five women murdered by Jack the Ripper. Extensively researched and expertly told, this book represents a marked shift in true crime by focusing on the victims and their families. Additionally, Rubenhold provides a fascinating look at the social, political, and gendered situations of these women and their cultural moment. As a Victorianist and a lover of true crime, this book was undeniably a favourite and is a credit to the genre. If you’re looking for a new and heartbreaking way to read these murders, this is the book for you!

2. The Lazarus Files by Mathew McGough (2019)

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McGough covers the murder of Sherri Rasmussen in this comprehensive examination of the specifics of this case as an example of the wider corruption present within the Los Angeles Police Department. McGough’s research and his use of primary documents—such as the diary kept by the killer and the LAPD ‘murder books’ is commendable. He works tirelessly to establish a patter of corruption and gatekeeping within the LAPD that ripples widely beyond this particular devastating crime. This is an incredible book and I could not possibly recommend it enough.

3. The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule (1980)

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What’s a Top Ten True Crime list without Ann Rule? A powerhouse and pioneer of true crime, Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me is the book to read. Rule’s experiences with Bundy are expertly conveyed in this book, and I think what makes it unique is Rule’s detailed emotional struggle with the facts of this case as the book unfolds. Her work to break into a distinctly male-led genre with this book is commendable. This is just a must-read true crime favourite for me.

4. The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman (2018)

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As a literature scholar, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) is a favourite book of mine. I admit that I was woefully unfamiliar with the real facts of the case that Nabokov based his fictional novel on until I read Weinman’s book. This text works carefully to dispel an established mythos around Nabokov’s work and attempts to re-center the sensationalized story around a very really young girl who was victimized at the hands of an abuser. This book is extremely powerful and well-researched. It’s worth reading, whether you’re familiar with Lolita or not.

5. Chase Darkness With Me by Billy Jensen (2019)

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I bought this as soon as it hit shelves last year and started reading right away. From his dedication onward, Jensen demonstrates the compassionate and careful skill that he seems to bring to every aspect of his investigative work. Not only is this book focused on Jensen and his own arrival at an interest in true crime, but it also provides vignettes of famous or unknown cases, and serves as an instructive manual for anyone interested in participating in private investigation or internet sleuthing. There isn’t another book of this kind out there, and this one is well-worth having on your shelf.

6. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2018)

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Speaking of citizen detectives, this book changed my life and I know it changed Jesyka’s, too. If you haven’t read this, please let me take the time to ask you: where on earth have you been? McNamara blends the modes of personal memoir and true crime together so brilliantly here, and her focus on the victims is a commendable tactic after so many years of uncertainty and mystery around this case. This book is beyond powerful—if you read anything on this list, let it be this.

7. Mrs. Sherlock Holmes by Brad Ricca (2017)

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You know I love a historical true crime book! Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is a true crime/biography hybrid that works so well. Detailing the pioneering efforts of New York lawyer Grace Humiston in the early part of the twentieth century and her efforts to solve the case of a missing young girl when detectives could not. This book is a powerful look at gender politics and social obstacles in the period.

8. Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (1995)

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Like The Stranger Beside Me, Mindhunter is another true crime classic that I can’t recommend enough. The origin story behind the Behavioural Sciences Unit at the FBI isn’t much like Netflix or The Silence of the Lambs would have you believe; however, it is fascinating and incredibly well-told. A crucial look at how and why we came to understand serial killers and true crime the way we do, this one has a lot to offer. I recommend reading a newer version with added forewords and commentary for the full, modern picture!

9. Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime by Claire Harman (2019)

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When I say that this is very much my thing, I really mean it. Claire Harman is an excellent historian—and Charlotte Brontë’s latest biographer—and she really brings to life a very obscure aspect of nineteenth-century history that unites a real-life murder with Victorian anxieties about literature’s influence on crime and criminality. Like The Five, this one is both a phenomenal addition to the true crime genre as well as an interesting and vivid portrait of nineteenth-century British life. I highly, highly, recommend it.

10. Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present by Peter Vronsky (2018)

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Vronsky’s book has every obscure, historical serial killer story you never knew you wanted to read about—all working toward an interesting social/physical/intellectual evolutionary argument. While many true crime books are focused on America and Britain (and sometimes Canada), Vronsky widens his scope, as he should, to the world at large and the various crimes that shocked different cities or countries throughout history. By no means exhaustive, Vronsky’s catalogue of historical crimes is nonetheless impressive. He invites us to consider predatory behaviour and aberrant psychology from a different perspective, which is altogether refreshing.