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.  

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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?

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. 

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…

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

Why did I love 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.  

By Vincent Bugliosi, Curt Gentry,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Helter Skelter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the summer of 1969, in Los Angeles, a series of brutal, seemingly random murders captured headlines across America. A famous actress (and her unborn child), an heiress to a coffee fortune, a supermarket owner and his wife were among the seven victims. A thin trail of circumstances eventually tied the Tate-LeBianca murders to Charles Manson, a would-be pop singer of small talent living in the desert with his "family" of devoted young women and men. What was his hold over them? And what was the motivation behind such savagery? In the public imagination, over time, the case assumed the…

Book cover of The Stranger Beside Me: The Shocking Inside Story of Serial Killer Ted Bundy

Why did I love 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.  

By Ann Rule,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Stranger Beside Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1971, while working the late-shift at a Seattle crisis clinic, true-crime writer Ann Rule struck up a friendship with a sensitive, charismatic young coworker: Ted Bundy. Three years later, eight young women disappeared in seven months, and Rule began tracking a brutal mass murderer. But she had no idea that the "Ted" the police were seeking was the same Ted who had become her close friend and confidant. As she put the evidence together, a terrifying picture emerged of the man she thought she knew-his magnetic power, his bleak compulsion, his double life, and, most of all, his string…

In Cold Blood

By Truman Capote,

Book cover of In Cold Blood

Why did I love 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. 

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…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By James Ellroy,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked My Dark Places as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On 22 June 1958, Geneva "Jean" Hilliker Ellroy was found strangled. Her murderer was never found, but her death had a lasting effect on her ten-year-old son who wasted his early adulthood as a wino, petty burglar and derelict. In this book he tells of his determination to solve his mother's murder.

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