Sure, warty witches with black cats and bubbling cauldrons are scary… when you’re in elementary school. But as we get older, things get less creepy. Or maybe our elaborate childhood fears just morph into something more mundane. We don’t worry about monsters under the bed; we worry about whether our backs are getting enough support on said bed. We can walk down a dark street and not worry about ghouls and goblins snatching us up; we worry about whether our tax dollars are doing enough to fix all the street’s potholes. (This is all really romantic, I know.)
Sometimes, and especially around Halloween, it’s fun to give ourselves a fright. And what’s scarier than real-life killers who knock off regular people just like us? Here are 11 true crime books to keep you up at night, sitting in your bed with all the lights on while you clutch a baseball bat. I won’t judge you if you decide to read these in the daytime. With all the lights on. And a baseball bat at the ready. You’ve been warned.
For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz
Just in case you’re confused, this book is not about the thrill of driving fast cars or bungee jumping or going clubbing every night until 5 a.m. Perhaps the subtitle will clear things up: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age Chicago. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were 19 and 18, respectively, in 1924 when for — as the title implies — the thrill of it, they abducted and murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in broad daylight. The killers thought they were too smart to get caught and were convinced they’d committed the perfect crime. Except for the fact that they left behind a crucial piece of evidence that, even in the days before DNA testing, put the proverbial nail in their coffin. Plenty of crimes jockey for the title of “Murder of the Century,” but the unflappable, sadistic teenagers at the heart of this case make it a prime contender for the dubious honor.
My Dark Places by James Ellroy
Best known for his L.A. Quartet novels — The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz — Ellroy’s own life is darker than any of his fiction. In 1958, the battered body of Jean Ellroy was found in a sleazy corner of Los Angeles; her son James was 10. For the next nearly four decades, James Ellroy tried to exorcise his mother’s ghost through writing fiction but her unsolved murder continued to haunt him. In 1994, he stopped running from the past and confronted it head on, hiring a retired LAPD detective to help him solve the biggest crime of his career. Reading this raw, searing memoir will only deepen the experience of Ellroy’s fictional oeuvre, giving readers an unflinching look at his life-long, and often unhealthy, obsession with sex crimes and police work. You should really call your mom after reading this and tell her that you love her.
Stories from Jonestown by Leigh Fondakowski
After reading this account of the Jim Jones-led mass suicide Guyana, you’ll think twice about drinking that Halloween Kool-Aid party punch. In 1978, more than 900 members of Jones’s movement/cult the People’s Temple drank a concoction laced with cyanide and died in the jungles of Guyana, where Jones and his followers had tried to build their own utopia. You can impress your trivia-loving friends after reading this book by pointing out that, contrary to popular myth, the killer drink was actually grape Flavor-Aid, not Kool Aid. Fondakowski not only helps illuminate the mindset of Jones’s followers in Guyana as well as back in the States, she conducts more than 200 hours of interviews with surviving People’s Temple members and dissects what it means to blindly follow in the footsteps of a mad man.
Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore
Bonus Read: The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer
Gilmore unfortunately owes his name recognition not to his work for Rolling Stone but to his older brother, Gary, who murdered two people in Utah in 1976 and was executed by firing squad the next year. The younger Gilmore recounts his chaotic, dysfunctional family life — including child abuse, rampant alcoholism, and adultery — and his relationship with a brother whose life went off the rails almost from day one. Gary Gilmore’s life and crimes are examined in detail in Norman Mailer’s sprawling masterpiece, The Executioner’s Song, which chronicles the killer’s campaign for his own execution. After a 10-year hiatus, Gary Gilmore was the first person executed in the United States after several landmark Supreme Court Cases grappled with whether or not the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Neither Mikal Gilmore’s memoir nor Mailer’s nonfiction novel — often mentioned in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood — seek to excuse the elder Gilmore’s behavior but rather to understand what makes a man into a murderer.
The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber
Sure, maybe you don’t like going to see the doctor. And hey, lots of people don’t like hospitals. This book will give you concrete reasons to never visit one again. When we think of serial killers, usually names like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer spring to mind. But those two had nothing on Charlie Cullen who, after his 2003 arrest, was implicated in the deaths of over 300 people. Over 16 years and in nine hospitals, Cullen, a registered nurse, quietly and methodically killed his patients. It’s easy to dub him an “Angel of Death” — which is surely the title of at least one “ripped from the headlines” Law & Order episode — but Cullen was no mercy killer. Like Leopold and Loeb, Cullen was, unfortunately, a smart guy. And that’s what made him so deadly. It’s true what television detectives always say: “at some point, he’s going to make a mistake and then we’ll catch him.” In Cullen’s case, it took years of work on the part of two retired Newark detectives and a fellow nurse willing to testify against her colleague to bring him down.
Sniper by Sari Horwitz and Michael Ruane
Few things are scarier than the thought that you could be shot dead on the street and never see it coming. That’s why so many “very special episodes” and season finales of crime shows feature snipers: they’re the great, deadly unknown. Horwitz and Ruane, both Washington Post investigative reporters, painstakingly trace the lives of John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, from their troubled upbringings to the three terrifying weeks they spent in 2002 picking off the residents of Virginia and Washington D.C. with long-range rifles. There was no pattern to the victims other than they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Before detectives realized there were two people behind the shootings, Muhammad and Malvo — who was only 17 when he committed the crimes — were collectively known as the Beltway Sniper or the D.C. Sniper. What’s nearly as terrifying as the random, bloody swath Muhammad and Malvo cut across the East Coast— they originally planned to kill six white people a day for a month but were apprehended after murdering 10 people in the D.C. area and 17 others around the country — is the nearly hypnotic hold Muhammad had over the young, impressionable Malvo. This book could make you a permanent recluse.
Devil's Knot by Mara Leveritt
Bonus Read: Life After Death by Damien Echols
Known as the West Memphis Three, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley were convicted in the murders of three young boys in their rural Arkansas town. Allegedly members of a Satanic cult, the teens were arrested and tried in a modern-day witch hunt, despite a lack of physical evidence linking them to the triple murder. Echols, thought to be the group’s ringleader, was sentenced to death, while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences. It wasn’t until 2011, nearly 20 years after the crime, that, after hundreds of hours of legal work, the boys — now nearly middle-aged — were cleared. Leveritt’s book, the basis for the recent film of the same name starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, takes you inside the minds of the supposed killers and paints a picture of a town split open by grief and hungry for revenge, the truth be damned.
People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry
It took Lloyd Parry almost a decade to write this book and it was worth the wait. Stationed in Tokyo as a foreign correspondent for the London Times, Lloyd Parry traces the 2000 disappearance of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old British woman working in the city as a hostess. For 10 years, he tracks the case — from the discovery of Lucie’s dismembered remains in 2001 to the seemingly sluggish pace of the Japanese justice system and the eventual capture of killer Joji Obara — and fleshes out the story of one young woman’s short life, set against the backdrop of life as foreigner in Japan. With unprecedented access to both Lucie’s family in England and the Tokyo detectives assigned the case, Lloyd Parry’s book will both fascinate and terrify you with its portrayal of an unrepentant killer and the ease in which someone can slip off the radar, never to be seen again.
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
Bonus Reads: Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss and A Wilderness of Error by Errol Morris
This is the book to read after you’ve got a few true crime titles under your belt and you start wondering, “how did an author get so close to [name that killer]?” Malcolm examines not only an actual case — in 1970, army doctor Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted of murdering his wife and two young daughters — but the complicated relationship between a journalist and a subject. Joe McGinniss’s 1983 book Fatal Vision, in which he first bonds with MacDonald — whom he originally thought was innocent — and then savages on the page as a murderous psychopath, is considered a true crime classic. But Malcolm, who begins her book with the adage “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” explores how McGinniss’s relationship with the accused morphed over the course of the project. She underscores how the convicted MacDonald was under the impression that Fatal Vision would help win his release until it was revealed during a 1983 60 Minutes interview with McGinniss that it would do anything but. To get the most comprehensive view of the case, check out Errol Morris’s A Wilderness of Error, where the Academy Award-winning filmmaker (who’s been researching the MacDonald case for decades) takes McGinniss to task and shows us that everything we once thought about the case is dead wrong.
Green River, Running Red by Ann Rule
If there’s one name to memorize in the world of true crime, it’s Ann Rule. This is the woman who worked side by side with Ted Bundy at a crisis hotline — and who was spared the fate of so many women the charming Ted met and murdered because Rule just wasn’t his type. While The Stranger Beside Me is required reading for true crime fans, Rule’s chronicling of the years-long hunt for Gary Ridgeway, known as the Green River Killer, should also make your must-read list. Ridgeway murdered at least 49 women — some estimate the total is closer to 90 — during his multi-decade killing spree in the Seattle area and Rule followed the case from its inception, covering it for a Seattle paper in addition to compiling research for what would turn into Green River, Running Red. Like so many serial killers, Ridgeway lived a mostly unremarkable life in plain sight and preyed on a portion of the population (i.e. prostitutes) both vulnerable to attack and less likely to be missed. We never know exactly what drove Ridgeway —who’s serving life without parole in Washington State Penitentiary — to kill and that’s what makes him even more terrifying.
Beyond Belief by Emlyn Williams
Serial killers are often thought to be a primarily American phenomenon but Beyond Belief reminds us that there’s plenty of evil lurking just across the pond. British serial killers, from the various Rippers (Jack and his contemporary Yorkshire counterpart) to Fred and Rosemary West, are just as unsettling as their American counterparts. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, known as the Moors Murderers, abducted, abused, and murdered five young people between 1962 and 1965, burying the bodies in shallow graves in the Lancashire moors. There’s a fairy tale element to Brady and Hindley’s crimes that makes it all the more unsettling, with children unknowingly drawn into a seemingly safe haven that turned into a torture chamber. Both sentenced to life in prison, Brady and Hindley became two of the most hated people in Britain — there was practically a party thrown when Hindley died in 2002 of pneumonia and it’s reported that nearly 20 undertakers refused to handle her cremation. Brady is still alive (it seems wrong to add “and well”) and serving his life sentence at the Ashworth Psychiatric Hospital, where he was moved in the 1980s after being diagnosed a psychopath and removed from the general prison population. This is the book that will underscore just how bad it can get if you talk to strangers.