The best historical true crime & mystery books

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

Who am I?

Years ago, I stumbled upon the gravestone of an unidentified murder victim from 1954. Then I entered into a partnership with my local sheriff and with forensic experts to successfully determine the young woman's identity. At the time, I was (and still am) a historical researcher, newspaper columnist, and author. The Jane Doe case, however, gave me the opportunity and insight to investigate and research the young woman's murder, allowing me to dig into the context of the times. Now, as a researcher and writer of historical true crime, I've found a niche, allowing me to combine my investigative skills and interests with a deep passion for the past.

I wrote...

Cold Case Chronicles: Mysteries, Murders & the Missing

By Silvia Pettem,

Book cover of Cold Case Chronicles: Mysteries, Murders & the Missing

What is my book about?

Cold Case Chronicles tells the stories of victims – some missing, some murdered, and some with changed identities. All are true, and each are mysterious in their own ways. The cases in this nonfiction narrative date from 1910 through the 1950s and include evolutions in forensics, as well as the historical context in order to view the men, women, and children through the lens of time. 

Included are recent theories on the cases of Judge Joseph Crater and film director William Desmond Taylor. Other chapters help to unravel the mystique of individuals with changed identities, along with a case of aerial sabotage, the "Boy in the Box," and the disappearances of four adventurers –– Everett Ruess, Joseph Halpern, and Glen and Bessie Hyde. Readers are encouraged to draw their own conclusions, consider how detectives would handle these and other cases today, and learn how genetic genealogy brings new hope for the future.

The books I picked & why

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The Devil in the White City

By Erik Larson,

Book cover of 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.

The Man From the Cave

By Colin Fletcher,

Book cover of 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.

Clueless in New England

By Michael C. Dooling,

Book cover of 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.  

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

By John Berendt,

Book cover of 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."

In Cold Blood

By Truman Capote,

Book cover of 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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