The best books about cold cases involving unidentified victims

Deborah Halber Author Of The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases
By Deborah Halber

Who am I?

I’d always known about the Lady of the Dunes. I’d read about how she was found in the dunes of Provincetown, Massachusetts, on July 26, 1974. I didn’t know about the tens of thousands of other unidentified victims like her, stowed around the US in the back rooms of morgues and unmarked graves. As a journalist who has always given a voice to those who struggle to be heard, I feel compelled to research and write about these Jane and John Does and the people who work to keep their cases in the public eye. I share a unique bond with writers who do the same.


I wrote...

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases

By Deborah Halber,

Book cover of The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases

What is my book about?

The Skeleton Crew provides an entree into the gritty and tumultuous world of Sherlock Holmes–wannabes who race to beat out law enforcement—and one another—at matching missing persons with unidentified remains.

In America today, upwards of forty thousand people are dead and unaccounted for. These murder, suicide, and accident victims are being adopted by the bizarre online world of amateur sleuths. The web sleuths pore over facial reconstructions (a sort of Facebook for the dead) and other online clues as they vie to solve cold cases and tally up personal scorecards of dead bodies. The Skeleton Crew delves into the macabre underside of the Internet, the fleeting nature of identity, and how even the most ordinary citizen with a laptop and a knack for puzzles can reinvent herself as a web sleuth.

The books I picked & why

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Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery

By Robert Kolker,

Book cover of Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery

Why this book?

It was chilling to learn that the bodies of several apparently unconnected young women had been discovered at a desolate Long Island beach in 2010. Five of the victims turned out to be sex workers who advertised on Craigslist. Through in-depth interviews with the victims’ families, Kolker illuminates these young women as individuals and pieces together their lives and their movements just before their murders.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery

By Robert Kolker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lost Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York Times Bestseller * Now a Netflix Film

"Rich, tragic...monumental . . . true-crime reporting at its best."-Washington Post

The bestselling account of the lives of five young women whose fates converged in the perplexing case of the Long Island Serial Killer. Now updated, with a new epilogue by the author.

One late spring evening in 2010, Shannan Gilbert-after running through the oceanfront community of Oak Beach screaming for her life-went missing. No one who had heard of her disappearance thought much about what had happened to the twenty-four-year-old: she was a Craigslist escort who had been fleeing a…


Q Is For Quarry

By Sue Grafton,

Book cover of Q Is For Quarry

Why this book?

Many get obsessed with cold cases involving Jane and John Does, and Sue Grafton was no exception. After a chance encounter with the forensic pathologist who investigated a Jane Doe who had been discovered near a quarry in Santa Barbara County, California, in 1969, Grafton incorporated the true story into one of her iconic works of fiction.

Q Is For Quarry

By Sue Grafton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Q Is For Quarry as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sue Grafton delivers an intensely gripping mystery based on an actual unsolved murder in this #1 New York Times bestseller featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone.

She was a "Jane Doe," an unidentified white female whose decomposed body was discovered near a quarry off California's Highway 1. The case fell to the Santa Teresa County Sheriff's Department, but the detectives had little to go on. The woman was young, her hands were bound with a length of wire, there were multiple stab wounds, and her throat had been slashed. After months of investigation, the murder remained unsolved...

That was eighteen years…


The Lucky One

By Lori Rader-Day,

Book cover of The Lucky One

Why this book?

I am biased toward any writer who features amateur sleuths. Lori Rader-Day not only plunges readers into a compelling story with a delightfully twisty ending, she also pays tribute to the volunteers who slave away on real-life sites such as The Doe Network. When the protagonist comes across a picture of a missing person, she realizes it’s someone from her past and resolves, for complicated reasons, to track him down. 

The Lucky One

By Lori Rader-Day,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lucky One as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"This might well be my favorite Rader-Day so far: a brilliant premise intriguingly developed, totally believable characters and a climax that took my breath away." - Ann Cleeves, New York Times bestselling author of The Shetland and Vera Series

From the author of the Edgar Award (R)-nominated Under A Dark Sky comes an unforgettable, chilling novel about a young woman who recognizes the man who kidnapped her as a child, setting off a search for justice, and into danger.

Most people who go missing are never found. But Alice was the lucky one...

As a child, Alice was stolen from…


Someone's Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe

By Silvia Pettem,

Book cover of Someone's Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe

Why this book?

Hikers stumbled upon the body of a young woman near Boulder, Colorado, in 1954. Buried in an anonymous grave, for decades she was yet another Jane Doe, abandoned and unidentified. 

Decades later, historian Silvia Pettem joined forces with law enforcement and forensic experts. Together, they exhume the Jane Doe and achieve the seemingly impossible: they identify her and her probable killer. 

Someone's Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe

By Silvia Pettem,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Someone's Daughter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1954, two college students were hiking along a creek outside of Boulder, Colorado, when they stumbled upon the body of a murdered young woman. Who was this woman? What had happened to her? The initial investigation turned up nothing, and the girl was buried in a local cemetery with a gravestone that read, "Jane Doe, April 1954, Age About 20 Years."

Decades later, historian Silvia Pettem formed a partnership with law enforcement and forensic experts and set in motion the events that led to Jane Doe's exhumation and eventual identification, as well as the identity of her probable killer.…


Autopsy: A Scarpetta Novel

By Patricia Cornwell,

Book cover of Autopsy: A Scarpetta Novel

Why this book?

I was lucky enough to meet and interview pioneering chief medical examiner Dr. Marcella Fierro—the real-life inspiration for Kay Scarpetta, one of the most well-known characters in crime fiction. Fierro, through Cornwell, laid the foundation for every book, movie, and TV series featuring forensics. In this book, Scarpetta is back in Virginia, where she investigates the remains of a woman whose body was found dumped near railroad tracks, her throat cut and hands amputated. A penny found flattened on the rail could be a clue to the Jane Doe’s identity. 

Autopsy: A Scarpetta Novel

By Patricia Cornwell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Autopsy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The legendary Patricia Cornwell is back with her No.1 bestselling, groundbreaking series following Kay Scarpetta Kay Scarpetta is back, and this time she's right in the path of danger...

World-renowned forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta and her husband Benton, a psychologist with the US Secret Service, have returned to Virginia. They are headquartered five miles from the Pentagon in a post-pandemic world that's been torn by civil and political unrest.

Just weeks into the job, Scarpetta is called to a railway track where a woman's body has been shockingly displayed, her throat cut down to the spine. But the trail of…


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