Every year a shelf’s-worth of true crime books make their way into readers’ hands — and sometimes nightmares — changing the way we understand ourselves and our fellow humans and documenting some of humanity’s darkest and most disturbing hours. The best true crime books of 2017 explore many of those darkest hours: unsolved crimes, long-forgotten murders, disappearing women, robbery and arson, and more; while also asking challenging and complicated questions about race and religion, punishment and politics, economics and culture, and especially about what forces ultimately propel a person to commit the most brutal act of their life. Oftentimes hauntingly relatable, the best true crime stories leave readers asking: ‘what would I do, when faced with a similar situation?’ — and perhaps this is where readers’ obsessions with page-turning true crime stories really lie.
The books on this list — some of the best true crime titles of the year — will take you through history and around the world: from a made-for-film murder mystery in 1940s Los Angeles, to a harrowing murder/suicide pact in 1970s Guyana, to the all-to-familiar terrain of Midwestern American college campuses, and beyond. They’re intense works of investigative reportage that not only chronicle real-life crimes, but chronicle the twists and turns of human nature as well.
Here are nine of the best true crime books of 2017.
'The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir’ by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Seamlessly blending true crime and memoir, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich takes readers into the murder that the writer herself became consumed with. An anti-death penalty law student, Marzano-Lesnevich finds her position challenged by convicted child murderer Ricky Langley. Digging into the life of Langley, she discovers haunting and uncomfortable parallels between his life and her own, in a way that forces her to deal with both her own past and the politics of Langley’s life or death sentence.
'American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land’ by Monica Hesse
Merging love story with true crime drama, Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land documents the series of arsons that plagued Accomack County, Virginia, through the winter of 2012. But when Charlie Smith, a struggling mechanic, plead guilty to 67 counts of arson, the story of these fires was only beginning. What lay at the core of the fires was a wholly American story of economic depression and cultural alienation, tinged with a love story gone wrong.
'Ranger Games: A Story of Soldiers, Family and an Inexplicable Crime’ by Ben Blum
Chilling in its relatability, Ranger Games: A Story of Soldiers, Family and an Inexplicable Crime by Ben Blum tells the story of Blum’s cousin, Alex, a U.S. Army Ranger who, just hours before a deployment to Iraq, committed armed bank robbery. In the months and years that followed, the Blum family was tormented by what happened to their 19-year-old? 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 experience.
'The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple’ by Jeff Guinn
The Jonestown Massacre — the largest murder-suicide in American history— has fascinated and horrified people around the world for decades. The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn is a profile of the mastermind behind that massacre, a young once-leader in the Civil Rights Movement, whose turn to affairs, drug use, fraud, and insanity led to the death of more than 900 people, including 300 infants and children.
'The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives’ by Dashka Slater
The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater tells the story of two high school students from Oakland, California — an economically disparate community that overlapped privilege with poverty in many of its public spaces. Including the 57 bus, where Richard, a black teen, was charged with two felony hate crimes against Sasha, a white teen, whose skirt he impulsively set on fire while the two rode the bus — propelling both teens into the national spotlight, sparking complicated conversations about racism and class, and changing the teens’ lives forever.
‘The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder’ by Claudia Rowe
Claudia Rowe was in her early days at the New York Times when local police in Poughkeepsie, New York, discovered the bodies of eight women in the home 27-year-old college student Kendall Francois lived in with his parents and younger sister. The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder chronicles Rowe’s obsession with not only the crimes, but how an entire family could spend two years living in a house filling with rotting corpses and never know.
'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
Merging true crime with the story of an early 20th century ceiling-smasher, Brad Ricca’s Mrs. Sherlock Holmes tells the true story of Grace Humiston, (nicknamed “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes”) a female detective and lawyer who became one of the greatest murder investigators in American history by defending women and immigrants, and taking on pro-bono work that nobody else would. But then, just like the many of the women she defended, she suddenly disappeared from the world herself.
‘Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America's Greatest Unsolved Murder’ by Piu Marie Eatwell
After aspiring actress Elizabeth Short is discovered murdered in a Los Angeles park, circa 1947, her murderer is never be found — but the investigation that followed captivated the nation, turning Short’s death into nothing short of murder mystery theater. Decades later, the true crime-obsessed are still enthralled by Short’s story, and Black Dahlia, Red Rose: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America's Greatest Unsolved Murder by Piu Marie Eatwell, digs deep into that cold case — and purportedly identifies the killer.
'Mad City: The True Story of the Campus Murders That America Forgot’ by Michael Andrew Arntfield
College campus crime has made plenty of headlines in recent years, but Michael Andrew Arntfield’s Mad City: The True Story of the Campus Murders That America Forgot returns readers to a series of campus crimes that have been all but forgotten in our national consciousness. In 1967, college freshman Christine Rothschild is found murdered at the University of Wisconsin — and her friend, Linda Tomaszewski knows exactly who the killer is. But when nobody believes her, Linda dedicates her life to doing some sleuthing of her own, discovering a book kept by the killer’s mother that not only details Christine’s murder, but the murders that came before hers, and after.