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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Erik Larson,

Why should I read it?

17 authors picked The Devil in the White City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Chicago World Fair was the greatest fair in American history. This is the story of the men and women whose lives it irrevocably changed and of two men in particular- an architect and a serial killer. The architect is Daniel Burnham, a man of great integrity and depth. It was his vision of the fair that attracted the best minds and talents of the day. The killer is Henry H. Holmes. Intelligent as well as handsome and charming, Holmes opened a boarding house which he advertised as 'The World's Fair Hotel' Here in the neighbourhood where he was once…

The Man From the Cave

By Colin Fletcher,

Book cover of The Man From the Cave

Why did I love 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.

By Colin Fletcher,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The discovery in a Nevada desert cave of what appeared to be a man's total belongings inspired this carefully researched account of a man who was a soldier, a prospector, and a wanderer

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

Why did I love 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.  

By Michael C. Dooling,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Clueless in New England as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Three young women, all seen hitchhiking, all disappeared. Two of these unsolved disappearances are the oldest cold cases in their respective states. Paula Welden, a resident of Stamford, Connecticut and student at Bennington College in Vermont disappeared in 1946 after hitching a ride to walk a portion of the Long Trail. Her disappearance sparked the largest search in Vermont's history. She was never found. Two states away, Connie Smith of Wyoming left a Lakeville, Connecticut summer camp in 1952 and was seen trying to catch a ride to the village center...and then she was gone. A nationwide search resulted in…

Book cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Why did I love 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."

By John Berendt,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Genteel society ladies who compare notes on their husbands' suicides. A hilariously foul-mouthed black drag queen. A voodoo priestess who works her roots in the graveyard at midnight. A morose inventor who owns a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill everyone in town. A prominent antiques dealer who hangs a Nazi flag from his window to disrupt the shooting of a movie. And a redneck gigolo whose conquests describe him as a 'walking streak of sex'.

These are some of the real residents of Savannah, Georgia, a city whose eccentric mores are unerringly observed - and whose dirty linen…

In Cold Blood

By Truman Capote,

Book cover of In Cold Blood

Why did I love 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.

By Truman Capote,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked In Cold Blood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The chilling true crime 'non-fiction novel' that made Truman Capote's name, In Cold Blood is a seminal work of modern prose, a remarkable synthesis of journalistic skill and powerfully evocative narrative published in Penguin Modern Classics.

Controversial and compelling, In Cold Blood reconstructs the murder in 1959 of a Kansas farmer, his wife and both their children. Truman Capote's comprehensive study of the killings and subsequent investigation explores the circumstances surrounding this terrible crime and the effect it had on those involved. At the centre of his study are the amoral young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock, who, vividly…

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