Is it just me, or does it seem like popular crime stories are everywhere these days? From the totally addictive podcast Serial (we’re still waiting for season two of Serial, BTW) to the fact that I’m pretty sure you can find episodes of Law & Order on television any time in just about any country of the world, there’s definitely a collective curiosity about criminal comings and goings. But the true crime section of your local bookstore? Well, sometimes those shelves get a bad rap.
For whatever reason, true crime titles tend to be relegated to the realm of literature’s ugly stepchild — aka: genre writing — or are given the much more severe criticism of pulpy, tabloid-worthy scandal. And sure, we as readers want to be mindful of voraciously consuming what was likely a tragedy for some as entertainment for ourselves. But at the same time, there are some true crime books that definitely take the genre above and beyond mere entertainment, demonstrating themselves as masterful feats of investigative reportage, research, and in-depth exploration into the human psyche. Like, for example, the titles on this list.
Here are 10 nonfiction books to read if you love crime novels — and hey, don’t let the true crime haters get you down.
1. The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
If you're going to read true crime, you might as well take a crash course in the ethics of crime reporting first, right? Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer offers a critical examination of the practice of reporting on crimes — from interviewing and building relationships with victims and offenders alike, to the motives of reporters looking for a true crime scoop.
2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Arguably the best true crime story every written, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood takes readers to the haunting plains of Kansas and into the hometown of the murdered Clutter family, four Holcomb, Kansas, natives who were murdered one night. Capote's research not only presents an in-depth portrait of the four victims and the small town from which they came, but it also offers an eerily human portrait of the killers themselves as well.
3. All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward are an integral part of every aspiring journalist's college syllabi for good reason. Detailing what is arguably to this day the biggest scandal in American political history, Watergate, the crimes Bernstein and Woodward detail in All the President's Men basically made them responsible for the unceremonious end to Richard Nixon's presidency. Investigative reportage doesn't get much better than this.
4. The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
Gary Gilmore became famous not for his 1976 robbing and murder of two men, but for his insistence upon being convicted that he be sentenced to the death penalty and executed immediately. A fascinating exploration of not just Gilmore's crime, but death penalty law as well, The Executioner's Song is a wholly unique story in the realm of true crime.
5. Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
Brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, members of a religious sect of fundamentalist Mormonism called the School of Prophets, insist they received a direct order from God to kill their sister-in-law Brenda and her baby girl. Under the Banner of Heaven takes readers behind the secrecy of some of the worlds most mysterious religions and demonstrates how dangerous fanatical faith can be.
6. Small Sacrifices by Anne Rule
Why would a young mother shoot her three young children one night, with the intent to kill? Anne Rule explores that question and more in her book Small Sacrifices, a true account of the crimes committed by Diane Downs, for which she attempted to blame a (some say, likely nonexistent) stranger. Those who followed the case back in the 1980s are still undecided about what to believe.
7. The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman
I love nothing more than a great book about a great book — and that is exactly what The Aleppo Codex is. Investigative journalist Matti Friedman dives headfirst into the politically-charged crossroads where ancient texts, book smuggling, the black market, and religion all meet in his account of the around-the-world adventure of what is considered the most perfect copy of the Hebrew Bible.
8. Columbine by Dave Cullen
In April of 1999 two teenage boys changed the way young Americans would go to school forever. In an account of the Columbine school shootings that is, sadly, more timely in the United States than ever, Dave Cullen takes his research behind the relentless headlines of the weeks following the shooting, to disprove long-held myths about the psyche of school shooters and to speak hard truths about gun violence in America. Columbine is a difficult, heartbreaking must-read.
9. The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber
It's almost unfathomable that registered nurse and beloved family man Charlie Cullen was able to spend 16 years within nine different hospitals, serially killing as many as 300 of his patients, completely undetected. With great Capote-esque style, journalist Charles Graeber presents a profile of a criminal that is both human and inhuman, terrifying and unbelievable, in The Good Nurse.
10. Thirty-Eight Witnesses by A.M. Rosenthal
Is it really possible for a murder to have 38 witnesses, and yet not one person do anything to stop it? You'll find out the answer (although you might be left with even more questions) in A.M. Rosenthal's Thirty-Eight Witnesses, an account of the 1964 murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese in New York City. A crime story that is more about the bystanders than the criminal himself, this one will definitely shock you.
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