The best narrative nonfiction books involving murder and mayhem

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a former novelist who now writes historical narrative nonfiction, mainly about American cities and the people who give them life. Each book focuses on an important turning point in the history of a specific metropolis (I've written about Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and San Francisco), often when the city goes from being a minor backwater to being someplace of significance. And I try to tell this story through the lives of real individuals who help to make that transformation happen. My goal is to use the skills I developed as a fiction writer to create historical narratives that maintain strict standards of scholarship while being as compelling and compulsively readable as novels.


I wrote...

Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans

By Gary Krist,

Book cover of Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans

What is my book about?

A New York Times bestseller, Empire of Sin tells the multifaceted story of New Orleans and its other civil war, pitting the city’s reformist “better half” against its powerful and long-entrenched underworld of vice, corruption, and crime. The action centers on one man: Tom Anderson, the undisputed czar of the city’s Storyville red-light district, who must desperately fight to keep his empire intact as it faces onslaughts from all sides. It's a story filled with flamboyant prostitutes, crusading moral reformers, inspired jazzmen, ruthless Mafiosi, extravagantly venal politicians, and one extremely violent serial killer, all battling for primacy in a raucous Gilded Age city unlike any other in the world.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City

Gary Krist Why did I love this book?

I love to read (and write) books about cities, especially when those books weave together several different storylines to create a kind of multidimensional urban tapestry.

Jonathan Mahler's book is a classic example of the genre, recounting the tribulations experienced by New York City during one of its most turbulent years – 1977.

Combining the narrative threads of a bitterly fought mayoral race, a notorious feud between the manager and star player of the city's beloved Yankees, and the terrifying reign of the infamous serial killer known as Son of Sam, Mahler recounts the saga of a fascinating city at a crucial and particularly troubled moment in its history.

By Jonathan Mahler,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Masterful . . . In Mahler’s expert hands, the city’s outsized citizens are flawed, fierce,
bickersome, and as indomitable as the metropolis itself.” —Mike Sokolove, author of The Ticket Out

A passionate and dramatic account of a year in the life of a city, when baseball and crime reigned supreme, and when several remarkable figures emerged to steer New York clear of one of its most harrowing periods.

By early 1977, the metropolis was in the grip of hysteria caused by a murderer dubbed “Son of Sam.” And on a sweltering night in July, a citywide power outage touched off…


Book cover of Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country

Gary Krist Why did I love this book?

As a former novelist, I'm especially alert to characters in nonfiction who are as vivid and complex as anything a writer of fiction can invent.

Sierra Crane Murdoch gives us just that in the story of Lissa Yellow Bird, an Arikara woman who, after her release from prison in 2009, becomes obsessed with investigating the recent disappearance of a white oil industry worker from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Lissa is a human dynamo – resourceful, quick-witted, sometimes charming, sometimes troublesome, and unrelentingly persistent: truly one of the most memorable characters you're likely to meet in contemporary fiction or nonfiction.

By Sierra Crane Murdoch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Yellow Bird as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The gripping true story of a murder on an Indian reservation, and the unforgettable Arikara woman who becomes obsessed with solving it—an urgent work of literary journalism.
 
“I don’t know a more complicated, original protagonist in literature than Lissa Yellow Bird, or a more dogged reporter in American journalism than Sierra Crane Murdoch.”—William Finnegan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Barbarian Days

NOMINATED FOR THE EDGAR® AWARD • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • NPR • Publishers Weekly 

When Lissa Yellow Bird was released from prison in 2009, she found her…


Book cover of The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees, and Cocaine in Miami 1980

Gary Krist Why did I love this book?

The Year of Dangerous Days is another of those city books that braid together several storylines into a single vibrant portrait. This time the city is Miami, and the year of crisis is 1980, when the Florida metropolis faced a toxic combination of racial unrest, cocaine-fueled gang violence, and an uncontrollable refugee crisis.

Nicholas Griffin anchors his narrative on a few central characters – a police captain, a prominent journalist, a drug lord, and the city's dynamic mayor – creating a cinematic account of a city that somehow managed to emerge from its annus horribilis scarred and chastened, but primed for an unlikely urban rebirth. 

By Nicholas Griffin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Year of Dangerous Days as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the tradition of The Wire, the "utterly absorbing" (The New York Times) story of the cinematic transformation of Miami, one of America's bustling cities-rife with a drug epidemic, a burgeoning refugee crisis, and police brutality-from journalist and award-winning author Nicholas Griffin.

Miami, Florida, famed for its blue skies and sandy beaches, is one of the world's most popular vacation destinations, with nearly twenty-three million tourists visiting annually. But few people have any idea how this unofficial capital of Latin America came to be.

The Year of Dangerous Days is "an engrossing, peek-between-your-fingers history of an American city on the…


Book cover of Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America

Gary Krist Why did I love this book?

As any objective historian can tell you, there are very few spotless heroes in history, and very few villains whose wrongdoing isn't firmly rooted in the psychological and sociological forces that shaped them.

So I really admire writers who, like Kali Nicole Gross, take pains to put the bad actions of their subjects in the context of their time and circumstances. In this measured and nuanced account of a sensational 19th-century murder, Gross carefully examines Gilded Age attitudes toward race and gender, tracing their influence on the crime, its investigation, and its punishment.

The result is a book both scholarly and absorbing – not an easy feat for any author to pull off.

By Kali Nicole Gross,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shortly after a dismembered torso was discovered by a pond outside Philadelphia in 1887, investigators homed in on two suspects: Hannah Mary Tabbs, a married, working-class, black woman, and George Wilson, a former neighbor whom Tabbs implicated after her arrest.

As details surrounding the shocking case emerged, both the crime and ensuing trial-which spanned several months-were featured in the national press. The trial brought otherwise taboo subjects such as illicit sex, adultery, and domestic violence in the black community to public attention. At the same time, the mixed race of the victim and one of his assailants exacerbated anxieties over…


Book cover of The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War

Gary Krist Why did I love this book?

I find few dramas in history more intriguing than that of Abraham Lincoln, and it's sobering to realize just how close we came to missing his entire second act.

The so-called Baltimore Plot – a conspiracy to assassinate the newly elected president while en route to his first inauguration – has been written about before, but never as vividly and novelistically as in Daniel Stashower's The Hour of Peril. In telling this riveting story, Stashower brings into the spotlight a little-known figure named Kate Warne, perhaps the country's first female private detective.

Tough-minded and self-possessed beyond her years, Warne assists the celebrated Allan Pinkerton in a tense, nerve-racking effort to spirit the President-elect safely to Washington DC – and into arguably the most important role in American history. 

By Daniel Stashower,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Hour of Peril as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"It's history that reads like a race-against-the-clock thriller." ―Harlan Coben

Daniel Stashower, the two-time Edgar award–winning author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl, uncovers the riveting true story of the "Baltimore Plot," an audacious conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the Civil War in THE HOUR OF PERIL.

In February of 1861, just days before he assumed the presidency, Abraham Lincoln faced a "clear and fully-matured" threat of assassination as he traveled by train from Springfield to Washington for his inauguration. Over a period of thirteen days the legendary detective Allan Pinkerton worked feverishly to detect and thwart…


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The Last Whaler

By Cynthia Reeves,

Book cover of The Last Whaler

Cynthia Reeves Author Of The Last Whaler

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Arctic adventurer Eternal optimist Unrealistic realist Foodie Teacher

Cynthia's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This book is an elegiac meditation on the will to survive. Tor, a beluga whaler, and his wife, Astrid, a botanist specializing in Arctic flora, are stranded during the dark season of 1937-38 at his remote whaling station in the Svalbard archipelago when they misjudge ice conditions and fail to rendezvous with the ship meant to carry them back to their home in southern Norway. 

Beyond enduring the Arctic winter’s twenty-four-hour night, the couple must cope with the dangers of polar bears, violent storms, and bitter cold, as well as Astrid’s unexpected pregnancy.

The Last Whaler concerns the impact of…

The Last Whaler

By Cynthia Reeves,

What is this book about?

The Last Whaler is an elegiac meditation on the will to survive under extreme conditions. Tor, a beluga whaler, and his wife, Astrid, a botanist specializing in Arctic flora, are stranded during the dark season of 1937-38 at his remote whaling station when they misjudge ice conditions and fail to rendezvous with the ship meant to carry them back to their home in southern Norway. Beyond enduring the Arctic winter's twenty-four-hour night, the couple must cope with the dangers of polar bears, violent storms, and bitter cold as well as Astrid's unexpected pregnancy. The Last Whaler concerns the impact of…


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