The best must-read true crime books

Thomas Doherty Author Of Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century
By Thomas Doherty

Who am I?

Long before the rest of the planet jumped on the bandwagon in the age of Netflix and Murders in the Building, I have been a true-crime buff (books, films, television miniseries, podcasts, whatever). Capote’s In Cold Blood was the gateway drug and ever since I’ve consumed an embarrassing number of books about serial killers, hit men, parricides, homicidal pick-up artists, and spouse slayers. Like most aficionados of the genre, the crimes of embezzlement and real estate fraud hold no interest for me, unless, of course, they lead to a murder. By the way, personally, I am quite harmless. Really. 

I wrote...

Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century

By Thomas Doherty,

Book cover of Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century

What is my book about?

Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century is the first cultural history devoted exclusively to the media coverage of the Crime of the Century—the kidnap-murder of the twenty-month-old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh in 1932 and the trial of the accused perpetrator, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, in 1935. The Lindbergh story was a transformative moment for each lane on the information highway—the print press, the radio, and the newsreels. The responses of the three media set the patterns for the coverage of every shock wave that would rock American culture for the rest of the century and beyond.  

The books I picked & why

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

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?

Larson’s sweeping portrait of the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, is a hypnotic blend of true crime and cultural history. Lurking just outside the alabaster sheen of the White City, the fairground built to celebrate America at the end of the nineteenth century as the nation looked forward to dominating the twentieth, were the death chambers of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a Hannibal Lecter-like sadist whom Larson calls “the prototype of the urban serial killer.” As the body count accumulates, Larson makes time for hundreds of unforgettable vignettes—like how a construction worker named Elias Disney would regale his young son Walt about the wonderous fantasy land being created on the Lakefront. 

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders

By Vincent Bugliosi, Curt Gentry,

Book cover of Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders

Why this book?

Joan Didion famously wrote that the 1960s ended at the precise moment the news of the Manson family murders began circulating around Los Angeles on August 9, 1969. To get a sense of the vertiginous horror wrought by the Tate-LaBianca killings, two books need to be read in tandem: the strait-laced, official account by LA county deputy district attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who investigated the case and prosecuted the perpetrators, and the tie-dyed street-level account by Ed Sanders, the underground journalist and founding member of the Fugs. One drops LSD, the other doesn’t, but both walk away from their excursions into the dark recesses of the SoCal counter-culture seriously freaked out.  

The Stranger Beside Me

By Ann Rule,

Book cover of The Stranger Beside Me

Why this book?

In the cottage industry of books, television series, and movies devoted to Ted Bundy, none is more compelling—or creepier—than Ann Rule’s hybrid of true-crime narrative and personal memoir. Rule has an angle so implausible that, as she often said, no Hollywood screenwriter would dare pitch the scenario: in 1971, while trying to make ends meet as a freelance writer for the pulp crime magazines, she worked at a suicide hotline alongside a polite and handsome young law student, little suspecting what lay behind his mask of sanity.  

In Cold Blood

By Truman Capote,

Book cover of In Cold Blood

Why this book?

Truman Capote’s groundbreaking “non-fiction novel” tells the story of the brutal 1959 murders of the Clutters, a farm family in Holcomb, Kansas, by two punk sociopaths, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The murders are transformed by his artistry—stark Hemingwayesque prose, seemingly detached but deeply humaneinto an existential tragedy played out on the American prairie. It is, I think, the only indisputable literary masterpiece in the genre it inspired. Not incidentally, Richard Brooks’s motion picture version from 1967 is a worthy companion piece. 

My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir

By James Ellroy,

Book cover of My Dark Places: An L.A. Crime Memoir

Why this book?

In 1958, ten-year-old James Ellroy returned to his home in El Monte, California, to find police squad cars parked in front of the house. He knew instantly that his mother, Jean Hilliker Ellroy, had been murdered. The die, as he wrote, was cast: crime became his obsession and—ultimately and ironically—his salvation. In this raw and unblinking memoir, the author of The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential returns to the scene of his first crime to try to solve the cold case of a death in the family. Don’t let the hard-boiled attitude fool you. 

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