Although you probably don’t need to turn to a literary thriller for your daily dose of crime updates — just scroll through your Twitter feed or turn on the national news — there is no denying that thrillers will keep you turning pages (whereas the news will only depress you.) But if you’re a reader who tends to stick to the fictional crime stories, it’s time to mix up your TBR pile a bit with these nonfiction books for people who love thrillers. From a weeks-long manhunt to stolen artifacts, the books on this list with take you through the heart-pounding moments following a crime, and the possible aftermaths that linger with families, communities, or an entire nation for years to come. And hey, in addition to raising your heart rate, maybe there’s something to be learned from reading true crime thrillers — the history we don’t learn about is the history doomed to repeat itself, after all.
And — not to be a total buzz kill — but while you’re getting your scare on, try to remember that these nonfiction crime dramas happened to real people, in real life. So try to read with the mindset of creating a world with less crime in the future instead of more; at least of the nonfiction variety. Here are 10 nonfiction books you’ll love if you read thrillers.
1. Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by stage actor John Wilkes Booth, a murder that set into motion one of the most notorious manhunts in the history of the United States. Crossing state lines and rough terrain, all with a broken leg, Booth evaded cavalry and detectives for a whopping 12 days before he was killed by his pursuers. Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer offers an amazingly complete account of the hour-by-hour events from Lincoln’s assassination to Booth’s death.
2. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt
Savannah, Georgia is a haunting enough city without the added dimension of murder; combine all that eerie hanging moss and crumbling plantation-era mansions with an actual crime, and you’ve got one doozy of a story. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story — a true crime tale notoriously hated by the residents of Savannah themselves — begins with an early-morning shooting and evolves into a story not only of violence and its aftermath, but of a city that, at least in part, hasn’t quite left the 19th century behind yet.
3. The Map Thief by Michael Blanding
In the era of Waze, Google Maps, and — I’ll just say it — "Pokemon Go", it’s difficult to imagine the value a paper-and-ink map must have held for the people who depended on it to make their way across the world. But such maps do still exist today, and hold immense value for those who study, collect, and trade them. The Map Thief tells the story of E. Forbes Smiley, map-dealer-turned-map-thief, who has been accused of stealing hundreds of rare, one-of-a-kind, and priceless maps. I promise you’ve never gotten so many thrills from geography in your life.
4. The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner
In 2016 we associate airplane hijackings almost exclusively with the unprecedented events of September 11, 2001. But as it turns out, in the years during the Vietnam war, from 1968 to 1972, airplane hijackings happened in the United States frequently — carried out by American citizens desperate to flee a disillusioned country, interested in making a quick buck off of holding airline passengers hostage, or in protest of the Vietnam war. One of the more memorable teams of hijackers was that of Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, an Army veteran and a party girl, respectively, who not only escaped across the world with their lives, but with half a million dollars to boot.
5. For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz
Chicago, circa 1924: privileged college students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb commit the murder of a child for the simple thrill of it, certain they will never be caught by police. Fast forward to their capture, and the court case that rocked the city. In addition to determining the fate of two cold-blooded murderers, Leopold and Loeb’s trials set the stage for a battle of wills between defense attorney Clarence Darrow — then the most famous lawyer in America, — and Robert Crowe — the state's attorney and Chicago’s next prospective mayor. If your jaw dropped at the Affluenza Teen story a few years ago, this one will leave you shocked too.
6. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
Another book that’ll take you into the heart of Chicago, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America tells the story of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a doctor, who turned the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair into his killing field. Erik Larson is a writer who makes history come alive in a way that few other writers do, and this book is one of his best, IMO.
7. End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson
The assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 is an event that has resonated through the American consciousness for generations, and is recognized by all Americans — including those who didn’t even live through it. From the same author who gave readers the aforementioned Manhunt, End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy chronicles one of the darkest hours in American history, an event around which skepticism and conspiracy theories continue to abound. This nonfiction account will take you through the events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination and the tense, heartbreaking days afterwards, as the nation tried to make sense of it all.
Ann Rule first met Ted Bundy at a Seattle clinic while she was working on the biggest story of her writing career — that of a serial killer responsible for the deaths of at least 37 women (it's since been said to number over 100.) But she never expected the man whom she and police were trailing was the same man who had become one of her most engaging friends and co-workers. The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy: The Classic Story of Seduction tells the story of Rule’s relationship with Bundy — both before his arrest and after his conviction.
9. The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry
Chicago (my beloved hometown) has the reputation it does for a reason, apparently, as it seems a disproportionate number of true crime thrillers take place in that city on the lake. The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago tells the story of "Stylish Belva" Gaertner and "Beautiful Beulah" Annan, two women who became overnight media sensations for shooting and killing their lovers. Running parallel to the story of these two murderesses is that of Chicago Tribune writer Maurine Watkins, who defied the then-status quo of the newspaper business by being a female crime reporter.
10. Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss
When the pregnant wife and two small children of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald were discovered brutally murdered in his home, he blamed acid-dropping hippies wielding ice picks — a story that didn’t seem to quite hold up. Or did it? Fatal Vision takes readers into the frustratingly unresolved history of this grotesque crime, revealing layer upon layer of inconclusive evidence, including one incarcerated man who defended his innocence all along.