You can admit it now. You read books and you like television. It’s not a crime. Good stories are good stories, whether they’re on the page or on the small screen. But we all know that truth often trumps fiction in the strangeness contest. Maybe sometimes, while you’re sprawled on the couch, binging on Netflix, you think to yourself, “I wonder if that really happened.”
That’s the beauty of reading true crime. It’s also what makes it terrifying and, if you read the right books, addicting. Assuming that all true crime is synonymous with the bargain bin mass market paperbacks you can buy while waiting in line at the grocery store (like I Knew I Had to Kill Him or ‘Til Death Do Us Part: A Murderous Marriage or even Surviving a Serial Killer: A Tale of Triumph —actually, I made all those titles up, but they could just as well be real) does a disservice to the genre.
Well-researched, compelling true crime is some of the best nonfiction out there. The books that resonate the longest — like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song — are well-deserved classics because they’re about more than the nuts and bolts of murder. True crime has the ability, in the right author’s hands, to touch on so many key social issues, from racism and poverty to the very idea of the nature of evil (no one will ever agree on the definitive answer to the last one, by the way).
If you’re a TV junkie who’d like to add a little reality to your media diet, here are nine exemplary true crime books to get you off to the right start — and a little guidance on exactly where to dive in:
If you like The Wire...
Then read David Simon's Homicide
If you like The Following...
Then read Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter (and Jeff Guinn's Manson)
Charles Manson sets the bar for sociopathic, charismatic
cult leaders with murderous followings. And Bugliosi’s landmark 1974 book is
one of the most comprehensive portraits of Manson and his “family,” who
murdered eight people — including Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate — in July
and August of 1969. The title refers not only to the
Beatles’ song of the same name (one that Manson was convinced contained coded
information) but also to the supposed impending apocalypse that triggered the
murder spree. If you’re in the mood for even more Manson madness, Jeff Guinn’s 2013
work, Manson, rounds out the picture
of one of the country’s most well-known criminal figures.
If you like Law & Order: SVU...
Then read Robert Kolker's Lost Girls
Most of you probably know this opening by heart: “In the
criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially
heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these
vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims
Unit. These are their stories.” Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls is the perfect segue from television to real-life crime.
He chronicles the lives and grisly deaths of five escorts, all of whom met
their doom on Long Island, likely at the hands of a still at large serial
killer. What makes Lost Girls even
more compelling is that Kolker spends so much time delving into the
backgrounds of the murdered women — he never lets their professions define them.
But the fact that they were all sex workers, some with more experience than
others, forces the reader to confront the reality of victims who are often
intentionally forgotten or brushed aside. It would be great if Detectives
Benson and Stabler (because who doesn’t miss Elliott?) could solve this cold
If you like The Office...
Then read Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me
Sure, you think you know
your workmates. Larry has tuna salad every other day and you want to throttle
him. Jane is always on Facebook and still makes more money than you. But maybe
that sweet looking guy answering phones at the desk next to you is not a man to
bring home to meet you mother. In fact, he could be a serial killer. Veteran
true crime writer Rule chronicles her time working the phones at a Seattle
crisis line in the early 1970s, where she bonded with her charming coworker.
That man was Ted Bundy. Rule escaped the fate of Bundy’s numerous victims
because she wasn’t his “type.”
If you like Bates Motel...
Then read Robert Bloch's Psycho
Technically, this is cheating because Psycho is a novel, not a work of nonfiction. But Bloch based the
twisted life — and crimes — of Norman Bates on the infamous killer Ed Gein, who
murdered two women in the 1950s and had a penchant for grave robbing and
fashioning clothing out of human skin. If that particular blend of crazy sounds
familiar, it’s because Gein also inspired Buffalo Bill in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. Remember, put
the lotion in the basket and you might escape becoming another patch on a flesh
If you like The Amazing Race (or Survivor)...
Then read Carl Hoffman's Savage Harvest
If remote islands and daring escapes are your thing, there
are few books better than Carl Hoffman’s disturbingly compelling take on the
1961 disappearance — and, he argues, murder — of 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller, a
member of one of the twentieth century’s most powerful families. The son of
Nelson Rockefeller set off to the wilds of New Guinea to collect what was then
referred to as “primitive art.” But after he vanished, rumors started circling
about his gory demise (hint: the subtitle of Hoffman’s book is “A Tale of
Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive
Art”). Hoffman retraces Rockefeller’s steps through the swamps of New Guinea,
where the Asmat tribe lives, their existence mostly untouched by Western
civilization. This might not be the best book to read if you were, say, flying
to New Guinea yourself tomorrow but from the comfort of your couch, this is a
compelling, tragic tale not to be missed.
If you like House of Cards...
Then read Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham's Finding Chandra
Scandals in Washington D.C. are nothing new — isn’t there a
show that deals with precisely that subject? We’ve become nearly immune to the
stories of cheating spouses and underhanded wheelings and dealings in our
nation’s capitol. But the 2001 disappearance of intern Chandra Levy and the
immediate accusations against Congressman Gary Condit. Were they having an
affair that ended in murder? Or was Levy simply at the wrong place — namely
D.C.’s Rock Creek Park — at the wrong time? It wasn’t until 2008 that an
investigation succeeded in finding Levy’s killer (no spoilers here). If you’re
a fan of House of Cards and the numerous
backdoor deals that Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood initiates, you’re sure to enjoy
reading this insider account of politics and murder.
If you like The Bachelor and/or The Bachelorette...
Then read Bella Stumbo's Until the Twelfth of Never
These shows are about creating — with the help of carefully
scripted interactions that are meant to appear genuine — the perfect storybook
ending, oozing with love and commitment. But maybe you’re in the mood for
something a little more in touch with the real world, where “’til death do us part”
is often taken literally. In Bella Stumbo’s Until
the Twelfth of Never, a jilted wife, Betty Broderick, took revenge on her
cheating husband and his new wife by shooting and killing them both. The 1989
case is especially fascinating because of the polarity of public opinion: some
considered Betty Broderick the embodiment of the sanctity of marriage while
others see her years-long abuse of husband Daniel and their eventual divorce,
which left Betty with a considerable sum of money, as the prelude to a deranged
act of murder. Sadly, Stumbo passed away before she could include the juicy
bits from Betty’s 2010 parole hearing (hint: someone is still in prison) but
her detailed account of the case is definitely worth reading.
If you like Pretty Little Liars...
Then read Rebecca Godfrey's Under the Bridge
Maybe teens with deep, dark secrets are your TV drug of
choice. All the girls in Pretty Little
Liars have a lot to hide, some of it punishable by law and some punishable
by the arguably more extreme form of penalty found in the halls of high school.
The teens at the heart of Godfrey’s take on the 1997 “Schoolgirl Murder” in
British Columbia have plenty of secrets. Chief among them is the fact that the
seven girls and one boy who savagely beat 14-year-old Reena Virk and drowned
her under a bridge managed to keep mum about their actions for over a week.
Just like so many TV outcasts, Reena was desperate to fit in with the supposed
“cool kids” and she paid the ultimate price. Godfrey, who mixes novelistic
suspense with a journalist’s key eye for detail, does a terrific job of
presenting the facts and letting readers decide how to judge the accused.
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