True crime is a difficult genre to perfect: there's a delicate line to navigate between interest and voyeurism, between the desire to inform or understand and a simple morbid fascination with a stranger's tragedy. The books below sidestep grisly sensationalism in order to explore the injustices — racism, misogyny, corruption — that motivated or facilitated each crime.
In There Are No Dead Here, Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno details the ties between Colombian paramilitaries and the government; in Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann unpacks a racist conspiracy to steal Native American oil wealth. And in A False Report, T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong set out the catastrophic aftermath when a young rape victim isn't believed. Buying a true crime devotee a present, or looking for a new read yourself? These are the books you should be turning to.
"Killers of the Flower Moon" by David Grann
In the 1920s, over 60 members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma were systematically murdered, in what was exposed as a vicious plot by white Americans to seize their oil wealth. Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman, loses her mother and sisters, and is herself the target of a murder attempt. The culprit? Her white husband and father of her children, alongside his uncle, who slaughtered her family in order to inherit her wealth. Killers of the Flower Moon is a story of racism, of conspiracy, and of murderous white greed.
(Also, a quick confession: Killers of the Flower Moon came out in paperback this year, but was initially released in 2017. Forgive me: I desperately wanted to include it.)
"The Real Lolita" by Sarah Weinman
Behind Nabokov's Lolita, there was a real case: the 21-month kidnapping of 11-year-old Sally Horner by Frank La Salle, between 1948 and 1950. Though Nabokov denied his Dolores Haze and Humbert Humbert were based on Horner and La Salle, Weinman meticulously restores to life the real girl whose stolen childhood became the author's most famous novel.
"The Name of Death" by Klester Cavalcanti
At the age of 17, Julio Santana's life took a definitive turn away from the poor fishing family in which he was raised. Under the guidance of his uncle, Santana committed his first murder; he went on to kill almost 500 people as a contract killer in Brazil. Investigative reporter Cavalcanti compiled seven years of phone calls with Santana into his book, offering an unparalleled insight into the true life and troubled conscience of a hitman.
"A False Report" by T. Christian Miller & Ken Armstrong
Extended from the ProPublica article that won its writers a Pulitzer Prize, A False Report tells the story of Marie, an 18-year-old whose life comes close to ruin after she's pushed to confess that her rape allegation was fabricated. Except it wasn't — and it's only when a brutal serial rapist is arrested that Marie is finally believed.