The best nonfiction books on international capers

Why am I passionate about this?

Thanks to formative experiences playing Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?, I’ve long been obsessed with international true crime capers. There’s just something about the genre, and how it ties together colorful characters, audacious escapades, and fantastic locales, that sucks me in. As a longtime journalist, I’ve sought out and chronicled many narratives in this vein – from snowboarding bank robbers, to an expedition in search of the origins of the world’s most expensive coffee bean, to the wild story that led to my book The Curse of the Marquis de Sade. Here are my favorite nonfiction books on international capers, guaranteed to take readers on globetrotting adventures.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Curse of the Marquis de Sade: A Notorious Scoundrel, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History

What is my book about?

The captivating and wildly fun true story of how one of the most depraved novels ever written—Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom—landed at the heart of one of the biggest scams in literary history. In a saga rife with scandal, Joel Warner weaves together the sweeping odyssey of 120 Days of Sodom and the spectacular rise and fall of Gérard Lhéritier, once the “King of Manuscripts” and now known to many as the Bernie Madoff of France. 

At its center is a profound question for all who cherish the written word: As the age of handwriting comes to an end, what do we owe the original texts left behind?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece

Joel Warner Why did I love this book?

Harr is best known for his blockbuster legal thriller A Civil Action, but the work that has stuck with me is his 2005 follow-up about a high-stakes quest to find a lost masterpiece by the Renaissance master Caravaggio.

Stretching from a hilltop village on the Adriatic Sea to the alleyways of Rome to an unexpected discovery in a dusty old house in Ireland, The Lost Painting taught me that a single incredible object—in this case, Caraggio’s extraordinary The Taking of Christ – can be the central character of a book, taking readers across centuries and from one exotic locale to another.

By Jonathan Harr,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Told with consummate skill by the writer of the bestselling, award-winning A Civil Action, The Lost Painting is a remarkable synthesis of history and detective story. 

An Italian village on a hilltop near the Adriatic coast, a decaying palazzo facing the sea, and in the basement, cobwebbed and dusty, lit by a single bulb, an archive unknown to scholars. Here, a young graduate student from Rome, Francesca Cappelletti, makes a discovery that inspires a search for a work of art of incalculable value, a painting lost for almost two centuries.

The artist was Caravaggio, a master of the Italian Baroque.…

Book cover of Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts

Joel Warner Why did I love this book?

This book jumped out at me at a bookstore one day, and I loved it so deeply that I sought out the author when I learned he lived nearly and we became good friends.

Rubinstein stumbled upon a true crime story most reporters only dream of – that of hard-drinking third-string Hungarian hockey goalie Attila Ambrus, who took up bank robbing and triggered the largest manhunt in post-communist Eastern European history – and then was smart enough to let the story tell itself, bit by incredible bit.

The result is a wild ride through the chaos of post-Cold War Hungary with a rambunctious antihero for whom you can’t help but root.

By Julian Rubinstein,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ballad of the Whiskey Robber as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Attila Ambrus was a gentleman thief from Transylvania, a terrible professional hockey goalkeeper - and preferred women in leopard-skin hot pants. During the 1990s, while playing for the biggest hockey team in Budapest, Ambrus took up bank robbery to make ends meet. Arrayed against him was perhaps the most incompetent team of crime investigators the Eastern Bloc had ever seen: a robbery chief who had learned how to be a detective by watching dubbed Columbo episodes, a forensics officer who wore top hat and tails on the job, and a driver so inept he was known only by a Hungarian…

Book cover of The City of Falling Angels

Joel Warner Why did I love this book?

In 2006, John Berendt published a true crime caper every bit as serpentine and seductive as his iconic first book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – but this time, he took aim at the quirks and secrets of Venice, Italy.

Exploring the mystery behind a terrible fire that consumed Venice’s historic opera house, Berendt immerses himself in the tale.

Reading it felt like settling into the iconic city and getting to know the wonderful characters who call it home.

By John Berendt,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The City of Falling Angels as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A #1 New York Times Bestseller!

"Funny, insightful, illuminating . . ." -The Boston Globe

Twelve years ago, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil exploded into a monumental success, residing a record-breaking four years on the New York Times bestseller list (longer than any work of fiction or nonfiction had before) and turning John Berendt into a household name. The City of Falling Angels is Berendt's first book since Midnight, and it immediately reminds one what all the fuss was about. Turning to the magic, mystery, and decadence of Venice, Berendt gradually reveals the truth behind a sensational…

Book cover of The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine

Joel Warner Why did I love this book?

Wallace begins this book with the ultimate set-up: A centuries-old bottle of wine supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson sells at auction for an astronomical price – but is the relic the real deal, or the work of a brilliant con artist?

While I’m not a major wine drinker – Two-Buck Chuck is usually good enough for me – I found myself utterly delighted by this fascinating yarn of obsessive collectors, cutthroat businessmen, and impassioned auctioneers. 

By Benjamin Wallace,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Billionaire's Vinegar as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The rivetingly strange story of the world's most expensive bottle of wine, and the even stranger characters whose lives have intersected with it.

The New York Times bestseller, updated with a new epilogue, that tells the true story of a 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux—supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson—that sold for $156,000 at auction and of the eccentrics whose lives intersected with it.

Was it truly entombed in a Paris cellar for two hundred years? Or did it come from a secret Nazi bunker? Or from the moldy basement of a devilishly brilliant con artist? As Benjamin Wallace unravels the mystery,…

Book cover of The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese

Joel Warner Why did I love this book?

The Telling Room combines several of my greatest joys: Spain, artisanal cheese, and the unparalleled wordsmithing of writer Michael Paterniti.

To track the creation one of the world’s greatest cheeses and the betrayal and sabotage that led to its downfall, Paterniti moves his family into a quiet Spanish village – and thanks to his vibrant, evocative writing, brings readers along for the ride.

As someone who’s spent time in the picturesque, history-rich environs of central Spain, I can attest that The Telling Room is the next best thing to travelling yourself to the lands of El Cid and Don Quixote. 

By Michael Paterniti,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Telling Room as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR • Entertainment Weekly • Kirkus Reviews • The Christian Science Monitor

In the picturesque village of Guzmán, Spain, in a cave dug into a hillside on the edge of town, an ancient door leads to a cramped limestone chamber known as “the telling room.” Containing nothing but a wooden table and two benches, this is where villagers have gathered for centuries to share their stories and secrets—usually accompanied by copious amounts of wine.
It was here, in the summer of 2000, that Michael Paterniti…

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Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

Book cover of Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

Kathleen DuVal Author Of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professional historian and life-long lover of early American history. My fascination with the American Revolution began during the bicentennial in 1976, when my family traveled across the country for celebrations in Williamsburg and Philadelphia. That history, though, seemed disconnected to the place I grew up—Arkansas—so when I went to graduate school in history, I researched in French and Spanish archives to learn about their eighteenth-century interactions with Arkansas’s Native nations, the Osages and Quapaws. Now I teach early American history and Native American history at UNC-Chapel Hill and have written several books on how Native American, European, and African people interacted across North America.

Kathleen's book list on the American Revolution beyond the Founding Fathers

What is my book about?

A magisterial history of Indigenous North America that places the power of Native nations at its center, telling their story from the rise of ancient cities more than a thousand years ago to fights for sovereignty that continue today

Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

What is this book about?

Long before the colonization of North America, Indigenous Americans built diverse civilizations and adapted to a changing world in ways that reverberated globally. And, as award-winning historian Kathleen DuVal vividly recounts, when Europeans did arrive, no civilization came to a halt because of a few wandering explorers, even when the strangers came well armed.

A millennium ago, North American cities rivaled urban centers around the world in size. Then, following a period of climate change and instability, numerous smaller nations emerged, moving away from rather than toward urbanization. From this urban past, egalitarian government structures, diplomacy, and complex economies spread…

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Interested in Hungary, wine, and Venice?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Hungary, wine, and Venice.

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