As the season of all things haunting, terrifying, and chilling creeps up on us, now is the perfect time to revisit some of the most chilling true crime books of the past decade. Humans — and readers — have always been fascinated with the darker sides of our psyches, and that’s exactly what great (and horrible) true crime books explore: the bad, the ugly, and the downright stranger-than-fiction of the ways humans sometimes transgress the boundaries of our humanity.
But more than guiltily indulging in the stories of the crimes of others, what these true crime writers strive to do is understand the nature of crime, exploring the cultural, social, personal, and sometimes political dynamics that lead to chilling and inexplicable crimes, and turn a person to criminal impulses. What is most chilling about many of the true crime books on this list is the seemingly “normality” of the perpetrators, prior to their life — or their single moment — of crime.
With fall in the air and Halloween on the way, get into the spirit of the scariest season of the year by adding these nine of the most chilling true crime books of the past decade to your TBR pile.
'Columbine' by Dave Cullen
If you were in high school anywhere in the United States in the '90s, chances are you have a vivid memory of April of 1999, when two teenage boys in Colorado changed the way young Americans would go to school forever. In his 2009 account of the Columbine school shootings, writer Dave Cullen takes his research behind the headlines that followed the violence, disproving long-held myths about the psyche of school-aged shooters and to speaking hard truths about gun access and violence in America.
'People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up' by Richard Lloyd Parry
Published in 2010 Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up tells the story of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old woman who disappeared in Tokyo in the summer of 2000. Months later, following a massive search and investigation, Blackman’s dismembered remains were discovered buried in a seaside cave. Over a decade of research went into Parry’s account of this crime and profile of the man, Joji Obara, accused of it.
'The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago' by Douglas Perry
Chicago, Illinois has something of a crime-filled reputation leading to a number of true crime thrillers set in that city on the lake. The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago reads like a darker, Jazz-age Thelma and Louise, telling 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 working as a female crime reporter.
'The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking' by Brendan I. Koerner
In our post-9/11 times, we associate airplane hijackings almost exclusively with the events of the 2001 terrorist attacks. 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. Published in 2013, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, by Brendan I. Koerner, tells the story of one of the more memorable teams of hijackers: Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow; a duo described as an Army veteran and a party girl, who not only escaped across the world with their lives but with half a million stolen dollars.
'Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery' by Robert Kolker
Nominated for a 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Nonfiction, Robert Kilker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery delves into search for a serial killer who is (ominous drum roll) still at large on Long Island today. The killer’s victims were five online escorts, whose lives and families Kilker meticulously researched in order to write this book — and each of whom were discounted and dismissed in death as chillingly as they were in life, and for whom justice has yet to be served.
'The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder' by Charles Graeber
Word to the wise: don’t make this 2013 title your next doctor’s office waiting room read. Registered nurse Charlie Cullen was known as a beloved family man — rather than the serial killer who spent 16 years murdering as many as 300 patients in nine different hospitals, entirely undetected. In his Truman Capote-esque account of Cullen’s life and crimes, The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder, author and journalist Charles Graeber shares a profile of a criminal who is both human and inhuman, terrifying and inconceivable.
'Truevine' by Beth Macy
Another true crime tale that dives into every mother’s deepest fear, Beth Macy’s 2016 Truevine transports readers back to the Jim Crow south town of Truevine, Virginia, where, in 1899, George and Willie Muse — two albino, African American brothers — were kidnapped and presented as circus freaks, performing everywhere from Buckingham Palace to Madison Square Garden. For nearly three decades their mother refused to give up her fight to get them back. What’s most chilling about Truevine is that it asks the question: were the Muse brothers better off in their global life of forced performance, rather than living in the poverty of rural, southern racism?
'The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer' by Kate Summerscale
A 2016 title that will freak out any parent or prospective mother, Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer introduces readers to thirteen-year-old Robert Coombes and his twelve-year-old brother Nattie Coombes — two boys who murdered their mother in the summer of 1895, and then went on a rollicking spree of shopping, theatre-going, and visiting the beach while her body decomposed in their house. Meticulously researched, The Wicked Boy reads like a novel, but the horrifying events are true to life.
'Ranger Games: A Story of Soldiers, Family and an Inexplicable Crime' by Ben Blum
Published just this year, Ranger Games: A Story of Soldiers, Family and an Inexplicable Crime by Ben Blum tells a story that’s chilling in its relatability. When author Ben Blum’s cousin, Alex, became a U.S. Army Ranger, the Blum family thought they'd witnessed a lifelong dream realized. But just hours before Alex’s deployment to Iraq, the 19-year-old solider committed armed bank robbery instead. In the months and years that followed, the Blum family was tormented by the question: what happened? Exploring military indoctrination and cult psychology, Ben Blum digs deep into what happened to his cousin, and the brutal and mind-altering training that all members of the military are subject to.