The best historical true crime & mystery books

Silvia Pettem Author Of Cold Case Chronicles: Mysteries, Murders & the Missing
By Silvia Pettem

The Books I Picked & Why

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

By Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Why this book?

As a stickler for historical accuracy, I love nonfiction. But, I also want the story to come alive, as if I'm watching a film noir. Larson's nonfiction narrative weaves together a serial killer and brilliant architect during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and he epitomizes what the Chicago Sun-Times once called "a historian with a novelist's soul." Larson skillfully combines true crime with dialog and historical context that clearly make his characters real.


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The Man From the Cave

By Colin Fletcher

The Man From the Cave

Why this book?

Mysteries also are a part of historical true crime, including people who were (or still are) missing and/or those who lived under changed identities. In the Nevada desert in 1968, Fletcher literally bumped into a trunk filled with decades-old possessions. Whose were they? Fletcher then documented his own investigation as he managed to find newspaper articles and National Archive records to piece together an old prospector's life. Armchair sleuths and others who are proficient in searching the internet today will find this book is a real eye-opener, as it shows what it was like to reconstruct a person's hidden life, without even getting online. For Fletcher, the process evolved a bonus –– a spiritual adventure of his own.


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Clueless in New England: The Unsolved Disappearances of Paula Welden, Connie Smith and Katherine Hull

By Michael C. Dooling

Clueless in New England: The Unsolved Disappearances of Paula Welden, Connie Smith and Katherine Hull

Why this book?

Dooling's nonfiction account of the searches for a girl and two women who disappeared in New England in the 1940s and 1950s is another good example of weaving together true crime and historic context. Only one of the victims' remains have been found, but all of the victims may have met up with the still-unknown killer. In addition to covering the missing person searches as they were conducted in their times, Dooling provides new hope by looking back on these cases with twenty-first-century eyes.  


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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story

By John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story

Why this book?

This is a book I read a long time ago, but it stuck with me for its humor –– rare in any book about crime. The murder (or was it self-defense?) took place in Savannah, Georgia, and was said to have "everything going for it –– snobbism, ruthless power, voodoo, local color, and a totally evil estheticism." Another reviewer wrote, "John Berendt has written a gorgeous and haunting blend of travel book and murder mystery. It is enchanting and disturbing and deeply atmospheric."


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In Cold Blood

By Truman Capote

In Cold Blood

Why this book?

I hesitated to include this book, as it's already mentioned under a couple of other headings. But, In Cold Blood is too good to leave out. Capote masterfully weaves together this true story of two murderers and their four victims –– members of a family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. Then he continues his investigation through the capture, trial, and execution of the killers. The book truly is a combination of multiple murders and mid-twentieth-century history. Written on the cusp of a new genre of journalism, In Cold Blood has been an inspiration to other writers for decades.


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