Raised on my grandmother’s Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins collections, I quickly graduated to the likes of Patricia Cornwell, Harlan Coben, Jonathan Kellerman, and Lee Child in my teens. I guess it’s no surprise that adult me devours true crime armed with endless amounts of questions. What makes serial killers tick? Is there a sudden mental break or a peripheral stalking of aggression and violence? Can killers be helped? Is there ever such a thing as closure? How do we make sure to prioritize the victims? While I may never find satisfying answers to all of my inquiries, these eleven books have definitely left an impression on me.
The author’s tragic death and the recent capture of the book’s subject make this an especially compelling and devastating read. Michelle McNamara ran her own true crime blog, investigating cases with determination and care. The scope of the Golden State Killer’s crimes and the lack of clues made this case a natural fit; as she sat pouring over every last detail and chasing down the subtlest of leads, she earned the respect and support of local investigators. Spending long hours enveloped by this level of horror eventually wears on the body and mind, but Michelle’s admirable efforts largely contributed to the killer’s identification and eventual capture. Sadly, she did not live to see him caught, but with I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK, we can bear witness to her process and experiences, and understand the terror this killer brought to these communities.
Until Claudia Rowe’s THE SPIDER AND THE FLY, I’d never read such beautifully written true crime, likely attributed to the fact that this unique book is part memoir. One quote made it to my wall of memorable lines, reading, "The logic of pain wound itself around every perception, a bright filament that strangled interpretation, colored vision.” A journalist curious about the mind of a convicted serial killer, Claudia picks up a pen and begins writing to him in prison, not exactly expecting an answer. What follows is a suspenseful undertaking involving an exchange of minds, needs, and compulsive danger.
Read this in the summer in the bright sun like I did, maybe lying on a towel on the beach. Read it far away from Long Island, where the book is set and where a killer is still at large. Bodies of girls each advertising their escort services on Craigslist provides a common link, but the mystery of a perpetrator persists. A house in particular is pinpointed as a possible connection, but no concrete evidence exists. Kolker is an investigative reporter who does a spectacular job inserting us into the lives of multiple women, the people who cared about them, and the climate they lived in.
There is a serial killer at large on Long Island with five murders to his credit. Lost Girls is the haunting account of the unsolved case and a humanizing depiction of Craigslist escorts. Robert Kolker reveals the three-dimensional truths about the lives of the five known victims—the struggling towns they came from and the dreams they chased. He also gained unprecedented access to the remote, idyllic Oak Beach neighborhood where the police have failed, the body count has risen, and neighbors have begun pointing their fingers at one another—and where these women’s stories come together in death and a dark mystery.
This book recommendation came to me from an Australian colleague, making me realize just how controversial and gripping the West Memphis, Arkansas, case must have been. (The story was also made into a movie of the same name starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon.) DEVIL’S KNOT covers the case of three teenagers accused of murdering three children in the early 1990s; explosive insinuations, stereotyping, and devil-worshipping practices are held to light as a vengeful and blame-fueled community attempts to wrangle the situation into a form of acceptable justice.
*SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING REESE WITHERSPOON AND COLIN FIRTH *
The West Memphis Three. Accused, convicted…and set free. Do you know their story?
In 2011, one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American legal history was set right when Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were released after eighteen years in prison. Award-winning journalist Mara Leveritt’s The Devil’s Knot remains the most comprehensive, insightful reporting ever done on the investigation, trials, and convictions of three teenage boys who became known as the West Memphis Three.
For weeks in 1993, after the murders of three eight-year-old boys, police in West Memphis, Arkansas seemed stymied. Then suddenly, detectives charged three teenagers—alleged members of a satanic cult—with the killings. Despite the witch-hunt atmosphere of the trials, and a case which included stunning investigative blunders, a confession riddled with errors, and an absence of physical evidence linking any of the accused to the crime, the teenagers were convicted. Jurors sentenced Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley to life in prison and Damien Echols, the accused ringleader, to death. The guilty verdicts were popular in their home state—even upheld on appeal—and all three remained in prison until their unprecedented release in August 2011.
With close-up views of its key participants, this award-winning account unravels the many tangled knots of this endlessly shocking case, one which will shape the American legal landscape for years to come.
Like I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK, this book involves another cold case, this one from 1912. Axes may be the scariest weapon, and the idea of an ax murderer wandering the country at the beginning of the twentieth century is absolutely terrifying—yet I couldn’t look away. This father-daughter writing team waded through what must be a record amount of material to build a profile and unimaginably identify the man behind these gruesome crimes.
I discovered the TV show before realizing a book existed, a reversal that had no impact on the captivating nature of the text (fear not, “read it before you see it” fans). The knowledge gained from these pages has come in handy as a foundation for reading other true crime books—and for a riveting serial killer trivia night at my local bar. Now I know that serial killers were once called sequence killers, and that John Douglas and his colleagues under the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) fought to prove the legitimacy of their work and the impact of their skills. Experience the very early days alongside these pioneers of their field with a book that earned a “remarkable and chilling” blurb from one of my favorite authors, Patricia Cornwell.
For anyone who has already watched Netflix’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, I shouldn’t need to say much more to convince you to read this book. For the lucky ones who now have both a book to read and a four-part documentary to watch, I’m slightly jealous. THE STRANGER BESIDE ME is Ann’s account of her friend, serial killer Ted Bundy. Meet Ted in childhood and adulthood through the eyes of a source with an emotional stake and a unique perspective, who’s still grappling with the idea that the man she knew could be a killer.
For fans of “Serial”
I’m not sure if there is anyone with access to the Internet who has not yet heard of the “Serial” podcast. The first season’s exploration was the catalyst for the current retrial of a convicted (but innocent?) murderer. THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, prolific author Ann Rule’s classic first book, details her friendship with Ted Bundy, whom she met long before he was revealed to be a serial killer. A sinister, and rare, portrait of evil.
Ann Rule of THE STRANGER BESIDE ME actually provided a quote for the paperback, saying, “A read-until-four-a.m. book!” It makes me happy when the authors I read travel in the same circles, as if I’ve picked the right handful of great minds from the endless batch of options. The book tells the story of a Spokane, Washington, rapist whose failure to be identified motivates a newspaper to offer a reward for information leading to his arrest. In a surprising twist, the elusive suspect turns out to be the son of that newspaper’s managing editor. Olsen’s extensive research and the story’s naturally sinister dressings add up to one unforgettably horrifying yet highly interesting read that Newsday compares to IN COLD BLOOD.
A classic from “the dean of true crime” (The Washington Post)—now with a new foreword—this 1983 masterpiece tells the incredible story of a Spokane, Washington serial rapist who was exposed as the handsome, privileged son of one of the city’s most elite families.
For more than two years, a rapist prowled the night streets of the homey, All-American city of Spokane, Washington, terrorizing women, sparking a run on gun stores, and finally causing one newspaper to offer a reward—the calls taken by the distinguished managing editor himself, Gordon Coe. In March 1981, luck and inspired police work at last produced an arrest, and Spokane shuddered. The suspect was clean cut and conservative…and Gordon Coe’s son.
For eighteen months, Jack Olsen researched the cases of Fred and Ruth Coe to try to learn not only what happened within that family, but how and why. He interviewed more than 150 people and built up a portrait not only of that extraordinary family, but of the mind of a psychopath. And searching the memories of the women in Fred Coe’s life, he unearthed a most horrifying question: What is it like to love and live with a man for years—and then discover he is a psychopathic criminal?
In this “gruesomely spellbinding” (Glamour) examination of the mind of a psychopath and of the women—and men—who were his victims, Olsen delivers “a harrowing portrait…It has become fashionable with books about vicious crimes to compare them to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Finally there is a book that deserves the comparison” (Richmond Times-Dispatch).
Read this book. You’ll find it mentioned in many more situations than just the above review, as it’s arguably the basis for this genre. Even the movie provides an epic foundation for many a filmmaker; I remember studying it in my college film class. The setting is 1959 Holcomb, Kansas, early morning, where four gunshots are fired; suddenly, a family is dead, and Truman Capote, along with fellow author Harper Lee, is there to interview the townspeople. When the two killers are caught and sentenced to death, Capote interviews them too. Published first in four parts in The New Yorker, IN COLD BLOOD is a controversial text that truly commands attention.
Laconic and atmospheric, this intensively researched narrative of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, and the two men who brutally murdered them on the night of November 15, 1959, generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.
“How could one person cause so much pain?” Velez-Mitchell asks in her foreword, where she discusses her trial career and how often she’d catch herself just watching the defendant. Then, as a TV news reporter, she spent time at crime scenes, observing cops and following the process. In SECRETS CAN BE MURDER, she explores a variety of crimes, analyzing emotions and buildups, consequences and confessions. Read this book if you’re a crime buff who wants to learn more about the motivations, lies, and calculations behind the cruelest, most unforgivable acts. And for the rest of us law-abiding individuals, Velez-Mitchell also asks us to consider why it might be worth choosing to be honest with one another.
Respected television news journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell asks a probing, disturbing question: Are killers like Scott Peterson and Andrea Yates all that different from the rest of us?
What kind of monster would do this? When journalists break the story of a child who's been kidnapped, a young woman who's been brutally raped, or a family who's been slaughtered, that's the question most of us ask. Secrets Can Be Murder exposes the hidden motivations behind the most sinister acts of recent times, with a behind-closed-doors look at these sensational crimes that will astound you.
After weighing in on high-profile cases for CNN, Fox News, Court TV, and MSNBC, author Jane Velez-Mitchell helps us understand these infamous crimes by unmasking the deceptions that turned toxic, exploding in rage and violence.
People lie every day to protect secrets, big and small. From desperate Hollywood personalities covering up their eccentric lifestyles to Bible Belt mothers who take the lives of their own children, Secrets Can Be Murder probes twenty-one separate cases. Each illustrates how leading a double life can land you in prison, and how failing to spot liars can get you killed.
Secrets Can Be Murder offers the inside story on each horrific case, unlocking the jaw-dropping secrets of the accused and revealing the common, innocent mistakes of the victims. After all, many of us have gone out alone late at night like Imette St. Guillen, or partied while on vacation like George Smith and Natalee Holloway.
From Dan Horowitz, the high-profile lawyer whose wife was brutally murdered by a teenage neighbor while Horowitz was defending a housewife accused of murder, to Neil Entwistle, the British husband who ran out of funds for an extravagant American lifestyle, Velez-Mitchell shows how each of these crimes has its own secrets to spill.
Many of us possess the same trusting nature as victims and carry around the same secrets as criminals -- whether it's debt, infidelity, or fetishes. With fascinating new insights from investigators and psychologists plus the friends and family of both the victims and the perpetrators, Secrets Can Be Murder illustrates just how little separates our so-called normal lives from that of a sociopath -- and how you can stay out of harm's way.
From the title alone, you can assume you’re in for a wild ride. Jon Ronson is a journalist and BBC documentary filmmaker, also known for THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. THE PSYCHOPATH TEST broadens our general view of psychopaths as serial killers, career criminals, and emotionless manipulators. Yes, the book features those types of people and the efforts to understand them, but it also looks at CEOs and politicians and doctors, people in power who are often revered. What starts as a quest to prove a hoax emerges as a riveting dive into what makes a psychopath and the history of diagnosis. It may not be as serial-killer focused as the rest of this list, but it’s certainly an educational and worthwhile read.
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