There’s something uncomfortably borderline-voyeuristic about reading true crime books. Such books are not, after all, thrillers or mysteries wherein the suffering is fictional and the thief/kidnapper/abuser/killer gets smacked in the face by karma at the oh-so-satisfying conclusion. In true crime, the victims are real, and very rarely do their stories end tied up in a nice, neat bow. As a reader, I know all this, and yet, I’ll still be the first person to admit to reading true crime — and as any true crime reader knows, since first discovering classics like In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter, it’s hard not to get just a little hooked.
But why do readers get so hooked on terrifying true crime books, anyway? There is something to be said for the heart-pounding hope of willing good to reign supreme over evil. There’s also something about wanting to understand the nature of the darkest elements of our shared humanity — evaluating where we ourselves fit in on the good-to-evil spectrum. And I supposed there’s something comforting about the fact that life does go on; sure, not always easily, and certainly not for everybody, all the time — but on the whole, human existence has outlived our darkest hours (so far, anyway.) And maybe that’s one of the reasons true crime stories can captivate us so thoroughly.
Here are 10 true crime books that will keep you up at night.
1‘The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City’ by Laura Tillman
Taking readers to the U.S./Mexico border city of Brownsville, Texas, Laura Tillman’s The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts investigates the 2003 murder of three young children, by John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho, who stabbed and decapitated the children under the premise that Rubio believed them to be possessed. Tillman’s book zeroes in on the psychology of Rubio, whom she communicated with during his time on death row, after his insanity plea was unsuccessful. The book also looks at the community where the crimes were committed, which ultimately wanted to tear down the apartment building where the children died.
2‘The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer’ by Skip Hollandsworth
Telling the true story of an Austin, Texas serial killer in the 1880s, Skip Hollandsworth’s The Midnight Assassin begins in December of 1884, when a mysterious serial killer began a vicious, year-long rampage through the city, killing women in terrifying and unthinkable ways. Then, before the killer was ever caught, the murders mysteriously stopped. Until similar murders began again four years later, this time in London — where police investigators began to wonder if the soon-to-be infamous Jack the Ripper got his start in the United States. The world may never know.
3'The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir' by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Coming out in May, The Fact of a Body blends memoir and true crime, as writer Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich takes readers deep into a murder that she herself became obsessed with. As a anti-death penalty law student, Marzano-Lesnevich suddenly finds her position challenged upon encountering convicted murderer Ricky Langley. As she digs into the life of Langley, she begins to discover haunting and uncomfortable parallels between his life and her own, in a way that forces her to deal with both her own past and her position on Langley’s life.
4‘The Man in the Monster: An Intimate Portrait of a Serial Killer’ by Martha Elliott
Journalists have always had unique access to the world’s criminals — and as such, often form unique and unexpected relationships with them. One such relationship is that between journalist Martha Elliott and serial killer Michael Ross, who requested his own execution after the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned Ross’s six death sentences. Elliott, an opponent of the death penalty, requested an interview with Ross — an interview that evolved into a decade-long correspondence lasting until Ross was executed. Over that time, Elliott was given extensive access into the mind of a serial killer, and those explorations make up her book The Man in the Monster, a revealing and often unsettling profile of someone guilty of heinous crimes.
5‘Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted’ edited by Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger
This anthology of true crime (or 15 tales of those wrongfully convicted of crimes, to be exact) will keep you up at night not because of its fear factor — although there’s some of that — but because of its eye-opening glimpse into the injustice of the criminal justice system. In Anatomy of Innocence 15 exonerated individuals tell their stories to celebrated crime writers (think: Lee Child, Brad Parks, Laurie King, and more) shedding light on not only what life behind bars is like, but what life behind bars is like for those who haven’t committed the crime they were accused of.
6‘Who Killed These Girls?: The Twenty-Five-Year History of Austin's Yogurt Shop Murders’ by Beverly Lowry
“The Yogurt Shop Murders” sounds almost quaint enough to be the title of a Nancy Drew mystery novel — but tragically, there was nothing quaint (and nothing fictional) about the murders of four girls whose bodies were found in a Texas yogurt shop. The police zeroed their search down to four teenage boys — only two were tried, and due to police-manipulated evidence those convictions were overturned. Beverly Lowry's Who Killed These Girls? describes the agonizing search for justice in a case that not only almost convicted innocent suspects, but still remains unsolved today.
7‘Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City's Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation’ by Brad Ricca
Brad Ricca’s Mrs. Sherlock Holmes tells the true story of a woman named Grace Humiston, an early 20th century female detective and lawyer who became one of the greatest murder investigators in New York City and American history — taking on the then-notorious case of the disappearance of 18-year-old Ruth Cruger. A woman in a male-dominated profession, Humiston largely focused her attentions on defending women and immigrants, often taking on pro-bono work that nobody else would. Nicknamed “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes” for her relentless pursuit of truth and justice, Humiston became widely-recognized in New York… and then, just like the many of the women she dedicated her life to, she seemingly disappeared from the world herself.
8‘Adnan's Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial’ by Rabia Chaudry
If you obsessed over the podcast Serial as much as I did, then Rabia Chaudry’s book, Adnan’s Story, needs to land on the top of your TBR pile ASAP. Written by the sister of Adnan’s best friend, who introduced journalist Sarah Koenig to the story of Adnan in the first place, this book dives even deeper than Serial, offering readers more background and legal documents, and describing how Adnan has coped throughout his incarceration. It also gives readers a glimpse into the prejudices suffered by the American Muslim community — both at the time Adnan was convicted, and today.
9‘Murder in the Bayou: Who Killed the Women Known as the Jeff Davis 8?’ by Ethan Brown
Another true crime book that covers crimes yet unsolved, Murder in the Bayou tells the story of the eight women who became known as the “Jeff Davis 8." When murdered sex workers began appearing in Jennings, Louisiana, the police set themselves on the path of a serial killer. What investigative reporter Ethan Brown aims to prove is that there was never any serial killer — arguing instead that the murders of these women can be directly linked to local drug dealings, and were deliberately shrouded by corrupt police officers.
10‘The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth’ by Stephen Singular, Joyce Singular
Stephen and Joyce Singular’s The Spiral Notebook is named after another notebook — that of Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes, whose court-sealed diary is presumed to contain his reasons for committing the attack that killed 12 and injured 58. Interested in investigating Holmes’s motives, the Singulars never expected the volume of documents and other information that would be restricted from them by the law. So instead of focusing on Holmes, the writers began investigating the epidemic of youth violence in the United States, exploring the explosive culture and haunting psychology that inform such attacks.