The best books about crimes you've never heard of

Rebecca Frost Author Of Words of a Monster: Analyzing the Writings of H.H. Holmes, America's First Serial Killer
By Rebecca Frost

Who am I?

I picked up my first book about Jack the Ripper the summer after college and never looked back. Since then my collection of true crime has grown to overflow my office bookshelves and I’ve written a PhD dissertation and multiple books about true crime, focusing on serial killers. The genre is so much more than Bundy, Gacy, and Dahmer and I love talking with people about the less mainstream cases that interest them, and the newer victim-centered approaches that—fingers crossed—mark a change in how we talk about criminals and victims.

I wrote...

Words of a Monster: Analyzing the Writings of H.H. Holmes, America's First Serial Killer

By Rebecca Frost,

Book cover of Words of a Monster: Analyzing the Writings of H.H. Holmes, America's First Serial Killer

What is my book about?

Decades before the term “serial killer” was coined, H.H. Holmes murdered dozens of people in his now-infamous Chicago “Murder Castle.” In his autobiography, Holmes struggled to define himself in the language of the late nineteenth century. As the “first”—or, as he labeled himself, “The Greatest Criminal of the Age”—he had no one to compare himself to, and no ready-made biographical structure to follow. Holmes was thus nearly able to invent himself from scratch. This book minutely inspects how Holmes represented himself in his writings and confessions. Although the legitimacy of Holmes’ accounts have been called into question, his biography mirrors the narrative structure of the true crime genre that emerged decades after his death.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Blood & Ivy: The 1849 Murder That Scandalized Harvard

Why did I love this book?

Talk about dark academia—what about a lecturer at Harvard Medical College murdering a Harvard graduate? Dr. George Parkman disappeared one day and was only found later, in pieces, and some of those pieces were in the medical school furnace. This book follows the case before CSI could help identify a man’s remains. It explores why, exactly, a man with such a promising future would decide to throw it all away—and how a janitor unlocked the solution made more complex by questions of class and new vs. old money.

By Paul Collins,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

On November 23rd of 1849, in the heart of Boston, one of the city's richest men simply vanished. Dr. George Parkman, a Brahmin who owned much of Boston's West End, was last seen that afternoon visiting his alma mater, Harvard Medical School. Police scoured city tenements and the harbor, and leads put the elusive Dr. Parkman at sea or hiding in Manhattan. But one Harvard janitor held a much darker suspicion: that their ruthless benefactor had never left the Medical School building alive.

His shocking discoveries in a chemistry professor's laboratory engulfed America in one of its most infamous trials:…

Book cover of The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Ninetenth-Century New York

Why did I love this book?

Helen Jewett was a sex worker living in New York in the 1830s. She worked in a brothel under a matron, which should have been a safe enough situation—she wasn’t out on the street, at least, and others knew when she had clients. Early one morning, however, others in the house wake up to realize there’s a fire in Helen’s room, and that she’s dead. Was it a murder committed by her last client, a man quickly identified as Richard Robinson, or was it a suicide? If she hadn’t died so brutally, we wouldn’t know Helen Jewett’s name, so she’s become another victim only known for her murder. Cohen reminds us that she’s more than just her death.

By Patricia Cline Cohen,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Murder of Helen Jewett as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1836, the murder of a young prostitute made headlines in New York City and around the country, inaugurating a sex-and-death sensationalism in news reporting that haunts us today. Patricia Cline Cohen goes behind these first lurid accounts to reconstruct the story of the mysterious victim, Helen Jewett.

From her beginnings as a servant girl in Maine, Helen Jewett refashioned herself, using four successive aliases, into a highly paid courtesan. She invented life stories for herself that helped her build a sympathetic clientele among New York City's elite, and she further captivated her customers through her seductive letters, which mixed…

Book cover of For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age Chicago

Why did I love this book?

Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb set out to commit the perfect crime and ended up in newspapers as the perpetrators of “the crime of the century.” They kidnapped and murdered a teenage boy in Chicago in 1924, but both Leopold and Loeb were still considered boys themselves at the time. Clarence Darrow defended them at trial, arguing that they were guilty but that the situation had extenuating circumstances. Baatz’s book explores how two college students from good families ended up in prison for murder. Leopold’s family even came from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, near where I currently live, so even though the case is almost 100 years old, it’s not as distant as it might seem.

By Simon Baatz,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked For the Thrill of It as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It was a crime that shocked the nation: the brutal murder in Chicago in 1924 of a child by two wealthy college students who killed solely for the thrill of the experience. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were intellectuals—too smart, they believed, for the police to catch them. When they were apprehended, state's attorney Robert Crowe was certain that no defense could save the ruthless killers from the gallows. But the families of the confessed murderers hired Clarence Darrow, entrusting the lives of their sons to the most famous lawyer in America in what would be one of the most…

Killing For Company

By Brian Masters,

Book cover of Killing For Company

Why did I love this book?

Denis Nilsen was arrested in 1983 because of the body parts found in his flat and then, in the car on the way to the police station, he confessed to more than a dozen murders. He had worked as a police officer himself and set about telling his story as clearly as he could manage it, dismissing his lawyer when Nilsen thought he was interfering. Nilsen, like the more popular Ted Bundy, liked talking, and one of the people he liked talking to was Brian Masters, whom he picked to write his biography. Masters negotiates Nilsen’s troubled life with his own reactions to the murders and to Nilsen himself. This is the book that inspired the miniseries Des, with David Tennant giving a very unsettling performance as Nilsen.

By Brian Masters,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The definitive story of the Dennis Nilsen case featured in BBC's The Nilsen Tapes, and the book behind ITV's Des, starring David Tennant

Dennis Nilsen, who died in May 2018, admitted to killing at least 15 people before his arrest in 1983. This ground-breaking criminal study of his killings was written with Nilsen's full cooperation, resulting in a fascinating - and horrifying - portrait of the man who worshipped death.

In February 1983, residents of Muswell Hill had been plagued by blocked drains.…


By Erik Larson,

Book cover of Thunderstruck

Why did I love this book?

The crime discussed in this book was once so famous that Detective Chief Inspector Walter Dew titled his autobiography I Caught Crippen even though he’d also been involved with the Jack the Ripper murders. Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American from Michigan—my home state has more than a few notorious citizens—who stood accused of murdering his second wife in London and then fleeing from the police with his mistress. Larson does what he does best, combining a murder case with a history lesson, and weaves in the story of Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of the wireless alongside Crippen’s flight from the law. The two converge in the middle of the Atlantic in the sort of exciting tale you’d expect from a Hollywood blockbuster.

By Erik Larson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A true story of love, murder, and the end of the world’s “great hush.”

In Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men—Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer, and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication—whose lives intersect during one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.

Set in Edwardian London and on the stormy coasts of Cornwall, Cape Cod, and Nova Scotia, Thunderstruck evokes the dynamism of those years when great shipping companies competed to build the biggest, fastest ocean liners; scientific advances dazzled the public with visions of a world…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in murder, murder mystery, and Illinois?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about murder, murder mystery, and Illinois.

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