The best books on crime exploring more than the crime

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m always intrigued by certain kinds of crime stories, but usually not by the crimes themselves. Straightforward whodunits bore me, and simplistic retellings of the hero myth just strike me as wrong. About thirty years ago, I began to wonder why—which crime stories intrigue me and which seem more like exercises in voyeurism. Turns out the stories I really get into wrap me in previously unseen worlds. They offer a fresh take, bring up unexpected considerations, present a new way to view the crime, or demonstrate why what I’d always thought was mistaken or insufficient. Such books present the crime, but contain much more than the crime.


I wrote...

The WVU Coed Murders: Who Killed Mared and Karen?

By S. James McLaughlin, Geoffrey C Fuller,

Book cover of The WVU Coed Murders: Who Killed Mared and Karen?

What is my book about?

If the crime happened today, cable news would cover it 24/7: In January 1970, two WVU freshmen, Mared Malarik and Karen Ferrell, were seen hitchhiking home from the movie Oliver! Three months later, their headless bodies were found in the woods south of Morgantown, West Virginia.

Investigators didn’t find too few suspects, they had too many: the campus janitor with a fur fetish, the cab driver who beat a woman nearly to death, the violent orderly with the bloody broomstick, the bouncer with the “girlish” laugh who threatened to cut off people’s heads. Then, the handwritten letters began to arrive: “You will locate the bodies of the girls covered over with brush—look carefully. The animals are now on the move.”

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Journalist and the Murderer

Geoffrey C. Fuller Why did I love this book?

Convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald sues Joe McGinniss, who wrote a best-selling book about MacDonald’s 1970 trial for brutally killing his family.

Author Janet Malcolm asks, How is the journalist like the murderer? When are they lying to each other and when do they conspire to deceive the world? Malcolm had me from the get-go (despite the unfortunate sexism of the book’s first sentence): “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Malcolm’s unflinching examination of sociopathy and masquerade proved an indispensable guide through the true crime space. And, as one summary said, The Journalist and the Murderer has “particular appeal for those who cherish the odd, the off-center, and the unsolved.”

By Janet Malcolm,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Journalist and the Murderer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible'

In equal measure famous and infamous, Janet Malcolm's book charts the true story of a lawsuit between Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, and Joe McGinniss, the author of a book about the crime. Lauded as one of the Modern Libraries "100 Best Works of Nonfiction", The Journalist and the Murderer is fascinating and controversial, a contemporary classic of reportage.


Book cover of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

Geoffrey C. Fuller Why did I love this book?

Baltimore Sun crime reporter David Simon practically lived with the Baltimore City police to produce Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

I love the writing, which is clean but descriptive. In the thirty years since it came out, this book has often been imitated but is still without rival. He wasn’t reporting stories I’d heard before (good guys chasing bad guys), and the social forces that the book explored (individual and institutional) were palpably real and never drawn in one dimension.

The contents inspired decades of television, from network TV’s Homicide: Life on the Street to The Wire, arguably the best police procedural ever produced. As a fan of both shows, I was drawn to this source material, which was layered with cynicism, hope, and dark humor.

By David Simon,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Homicide as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the creator of HBO's The Wire, the classic book about homicide investigation that became the basis for the hit television show

The scene is Baltimore. Twice every three days another citizen is shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned to death. At the center of this hurricane of crime is the city's homicide unit, a small brotherhood of hard men who fight for whatever justice is possible in a deadly world.

David Simon was the first reporter ever to gain unlimited access to a homicide unit, and this electrifying book tells the true story of a year on the violent streets of…


Book cover of Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere

Geoffrey C. Fuller Why did I love this book?

I thought Love & Terror was a book about a killing in Chadron, Nebraska, which was correct. . . sort of. Ballantine’s sparkling prose and grim compassion hooked me immediately. The book does examine a death—suicide? murder?—but we don’t meet the victim, Steven Haataja, until page 62. 

Ballantine drives past the shuffling Haataja the night before his death and tells us Haataja “limped slightly from a recently broken hip. If I’d known what was going to happen to him, I would have run him over . . . hard enough to break his other hip, put him back in his wheelchair,” in order to prevent his death. 

When I first read Love & Terror, I learned crime doesn’t need to be the center of a true crime.

By Poe Ballantine,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fans of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil will embrace Poe Ballantine's Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere.

Poe Ballantine's "Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel" included in Best American Essays 2013, and for well over twenty years, Poe Ballantine traveled America, taking odd jobs, living in small rooms, trying to make a living as a writer. At age 46, he finally settled with his Mexican immigrant wife in Chadron, Nebraska, where they had a son who was red-flagged as autistic. Poe published four books about his…


Book cover of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI

Geoffrey C. Fuller Why did I love this book?

Somehow, I’d never heard of the crime The Burglary details: the 1971 burglary of FBI field offices. And somehow, the burglars remained anonymous for decades.

A reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer at the time, Medsger was one of journalists who received copies of the FBI files stolen by three professors, a daycare worker, a social worker, and others who called themselves The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. The stolen files exposed COINTELPRO and other illegal FBI investigations, and fundamentally altered the FBI.

The Burglary told me the value of detailed research, especially relating a 50-year-old crime, and showed me the essential importance of understanding the society surrounding the crime in order to fully comprehend the crime.

By Betty Medsger,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The never-before-told full story of the history-changing break-in at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, by a group of unlikely activists—quiet, ordinary, hardworking Americans—that made clear the shocking truth and confirmed what some had long suspected, that J. Edgar Hoover had created and was operating, in violation of the U.S. Constitution, his own shadow Bureau of Investigation.

It begins in 1971 in an America being split apart by the Vietnam War . . . A small group of activists—eight men and women—the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, inspired by Daniel Berrigan’s rebellious Catholic peace movement, set out to use…


Book cover of A Death in Belmont

Geoffrey C. Fuller Why did I love this book?

I’ve long admired Sebastian Junger, who writes with precision, empathy, and intelligence.

He’s best known for A Perfect Storm, but in A Death in Belmont, a 1962 photograph shows him as an infant in his mother’s lap, posing with the two carpenters who’d just added an art studio to the Jungers’ home: The younger man is Albert DeSalvo, later known as The Boston Strangler.

Junger argues, convincingly but not definitively, that DeSalvo may have been responsible for the rape-murder of Bessie Goldberg, who lived near the Jungers, despite the conviction, based on circumstantial evidence, of Roy Smith, an African-American man seen walking the neighborhood,

My copy is feathered with Post-it notes marking passages that speak to the nature of murder and the difficult process of investigating a wrongful conviction.

By Sebastian Junger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Death in Belmont as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the spring of 1963, the quiet suburb of Belmont, Massachusetts, is rocked by a shocking sex murder that exactly fits the pattern of the Boston Strangler. Sensing a break in the case that has paralyzed the city of Boston, the police track down a black man, Roy Smith, who cleaned the victim's house that day and left a receipt with his name on the kitchen counter. Smith is hastily convicted of the Belmont murder, but the terror of the Strangler continues.

On the day of the murder, Albert DeSalvo-the man who would eventually confess in lurid detail to the…


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The Last Whaler

By Cynthia Reeves,

Book cover of The Last Whaler

Cynthia Reeves Author Of The Last Whaler

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Arctic adventurer Eternal optimist Unrealistic realist Foodie Teacher

Cynthia's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This book is an elegiac meditation on the will to survive. Tor, a beluga whaler, and his wife, Astrid, a botanist specializing in Arctic flora, are stranded during the dark season of 1937-38 at his remote whaling station in the Svalbard archipelago when they misjudge ice conditions and fail to rendezvous with the ship meant to carry them back to their home in southern Norway. 

Beyond enduring the Arctic winter’s twenty-four-hour night, the couple must cope with the dangers of polar bears, violent storms, and bitter cold, as well as Astrid’s unexpected pregnancy.

The Last Whaler concerns the impact of…

The Last Whaler

By Cynthia Reeves,

What is this book about?

The Last Whaler is an elegiac meditation on the will to survive under extreme conditions. Tor, a beluga whaler, and his wife, Astrid, a botanist specializing in Arctic flora, are stranded during the dark season of 1937-38 at his remote whaling station when they misjudge ice conditions and fail to rendezvous with the ship meant to carry them back to their home in southern Norway. Beyond enduring the Arctic winter's twenty-four-hour night, the couple must cope with the dangers of polar bears, violent storms, and bitter cold as well as Astrid's unexpected pregnancy. The Last Whaler concerns the impact of…


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Interested in journalism, murder, and murder mystery?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about journalism, murder, and murder mystery.

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