True crime has the tendency to lend itself to over-dramatization and spectacle. While true crime books, television shows, podcasts, and movies have captivated audiences for years, it's always important to keep in mind the angle of the artist. In the case of HBO's newest documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest, the story itself is so extraordinarily unique that the film lets it speak for itself. From filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, the documentary tells the story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard and the dark secret both of them were hiding. What starts out as a case of matricide quickly unravels to reveal a history of deception and abuse, and a lifetime of lies gone unchecked. Part of the reason the film works so well is because the interrogation tapes, medical records, secret conversations, and exclusive interviews are all working to uncover the human subject beneath the scandalous true events.
The documentary combines elements of true crime, southern gothic, and detective tales to create a documentary that will captivate audiences from beginning to end. The documentary should be on the watchlist of any true crime fan. After watching the film, once you've been bit by the true crime bug, check out these books that explore crimes that are just as inconceivable, horrific, and absolutely true.
1'Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders' by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
Helter Skelter is the best-selling true crime book in history. Written by Charles Manson's prosecuting attorney, the book outlines one of the most baffling cases in recent history. Detailing the nine seemingly-random, cold-blooded murders, possible motivations, and questions of manipulation, this book is not for the faint of heart.
2'Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South' by Beth Macy
Beth Macy's Truevine was released in 2016 and tells the story of two African-American brothers who grew up in Truevine, Virginia on a tobacco farm. Both the brothers were albinos and as children they were allegedly kidnapped and forced to perform as unpaid employees in a circus. Most frequently, they were marketed as savages or martians. Macy explores the story of the boys, the cruel exploitation they were forced to endure, and their eventual escape.
3'Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People' by Tim Reiterman
Soon to be adapted into an HBO miniseries, this book provides a comprehensive history of Reverend Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and the tragedy at Jonestown in 1978. Clocking in just under 700 pages, the book clarifies misperceptions about the motivation of Jones, why people might have followed him, and whether the event at Jonestown should be considered mass suicide or mass murder. The book includes interviews, audio tapes, and draws on hundreds of sources.
4'Small Sacrifices' by Ann Rule
Ann Rule is known for her elegant writing style and unparalleled ability to write true crime with insight, detail, and nail-biting suspense. This book, which took three years to write, tells the tragic story of one mother's heinous crime. Diane Downs shot all three of her children point blank in her car, successfully killing one of her daughters. Ann Rule observed Downs throughout the trial, and she uses those first-hand experiences to add uncanny details to this book.
5'American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst' by Jeffrey Toobin
Toobin is a New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author. Released in 2016, this book details the kidnapping and trial of Patty Hearst, heiress to the Hearst Family fortune. After being taken by a "ragtag" group of revolutionaries called the Symbonese Liberation Army, she was spotted on a security tape wielding a machine gun, the LAPD engaged in the largest shoot-out in American history, her trial featured theatrical courtroom confessions, and "Stockholm syndrome" captivated that nation. Toobin uses her story to explore an astonishingly bizzare decade in American history.
6'People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman' by Richard Lloyd Parry
Lucie Blackman was 21-years old and living in Tokyo when she disappeared. The following winter, her dismembered remains were found in a seaside cave. Richard Lloyd Parry has spent a decade traveling across four continents to interview important figures of the case. His research unearthed some astonishing truths about an unbelievable, heinous crime.
7'Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial' by Janet Malcolm
In an event that shook the quiet neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens, Mazoltuv Borukhova was accused of hiring an assassin to kill her estranged husband, Daniel Malakov, in the presence of their four-year old child. Author Janet Malcolm looks at the trail from every angle in her book, taking special care to explore the murder trial — and especially what "reasonable doubt" really means.
8'Kentucky Bloodbath: Ten Bizarre Tales of Murder from the Bluegrass State' by Kevin Sullivan
This book, which chronicles 10 homicides, is an in-depth study of Kentucky killers and their victims. Separating facts from spectacle, Sullivan leans heavily on case files and interviews to unearth stories that would have been otherwise lost.
9'A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald' by Errol Morris
Errol Morris, an Academy Award-wining filmmaker and private detective, examines the infamous murder case of Jeffrey MacDonald in A Wilderness of Error. Early one morning, MacDonald called the police for help, but when the officers arrived at the house, they found the battered bodies of MacDonald's pregnant wife and daughters. MacDonald said they were killed by a group of "drug-crazed hippies". He was eventually convicted for the crime and remains in prison today. Morris has been investigating this case for over 20 years, and in this book he separates myth and fact. As a result, two very different narratives of the crime emerge.
10'Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three' by Mara Leveritt
Mara Leveritt's Devil's Knot is the most comprehensive and thorough investigation into one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American history. In 1993 Arkansas, three eight-year old boys were murdered. Consequently, three teenagers who were allegedly members of a satanic cult were charged with the killings. Despite a mishandled investigation, no physical evidence, and a confession riddled with errors, two of the boys were sentenced to life in prison and the "ringleader" was sentenced to death. While the verdicts were popular in the home state, all three were eventually released in 2011. Leveritt explores the human emotions behind the case and the repercussions that will impact the American legal landscape for years after.
11'A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders' by Gary M. Lavergne
A Sniper in the Tower chronicles the horrific shooting that remains the largest simultaneous mass murder in American history. Charles Joseph Whitman ascended the University of Texas Tower and gunned down 45 people inside and around the Tower before he was killed. The crime opens debates about domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse, military indoctrination, and the gray area between civic liberties and public safety.
12'Vampire: The Richard Chase Murders' by Kevin M. Sullivan
As the title suggests, Richard Chase terrorized the neighborhoods of Sacramento, CA by killing residents and drinking the victim's blood. It was a time of unparalleled terror for the city and the police, who scrambled to track down a killer who would not stop until apprehended. Sullivan unpacks the life and mind of the deeply troubled killer, his family, and his victims.
13'The Devil's Rooming House: The True Story of America's Deadliest Female Serial Killer' by M. William Phelps
The story that inspired the Broadway hit Arsenic and Old Lace, the story of America's most prolific female serial killer is just as terrifying and captivating as it was in the early 1900s. In Windsor, Connecticut, a local reporter would notice a sharp rise of obituaries for residence of a rooming house and investigate owner Amy Archer-Gilligan, who was eventually accused of murdering both her husbands and 66 patients with cocktails of lemonade and arsenic.