The Best Nonfiction Books About Single-Case Serial Murder Investigations

The Books I Picked & Why

The Sadist

By Karl Berg

The Sadist

Why this book?

Berg’s groundbreaking study of Peter Kürten, a blood-drinking serial killer with a diverse variety of victims in Düsseldorf, Germany, became a classic criminology text during the 1940s. Because Berg, a pathologist, had performed the autopsies, he had a privileged perspective on the murders. He noticed the use of different weapons and did his own research as he hypothesized how the assaults were linked. Going beyond mere case analysis, Berg offered a means for other professionals to consider the psychological details in the development of extreme sexual cruelty. When Kürten was arrested, Berg spent many hours face-to-face with him in his cell, watching his excited manner as he recounted his deeds. The Sadist is one of the earliest attempts to penetrate the deviant mind of a repeat offender, told by the person with the most accurate knowledge of how the killer had treated each victim.


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The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science

By Douglas Starr

The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science

Why this book?

Starr, a journalist, dug deep into French archives to document the crime spree and investigation of “French Ripper” Joseph Vacher, whom journalists speculated might be the still-uncaught Jack the Ripper. Lacassagne evaluated Vacher, who was accused of viciously murdering and mutilating fourteen young people around the French countryside. Starr includes the story of how a magistrate meticulously created one of the earliest behavioral profiles, which Lacassagne used for his own analysis. This is an impressive story of mental detection in 1896, a time when there were few resources, especially for cross-jurisdiction investigation. It took a special kind of inventive mind to link incident reports and make this savage killer accountable every crime he committed. Years before the publication of the first story featuring Sherlock Holmes, Lacassagne exercised full critical examination and became one of the top innovators in Europe.


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The Holmes-Pitezel: Case a History of the Greatest Crime of the Century and of the Search for the Missing Pitezel Children

By Frank P. Geyer

The Holmes-Pitezel: Case a History of the Greatest Crime of the Century and of the Search for the Missing Pitezel Children

Why this book?

Geyer describes the painstaking work he did over two months in 1895 as the lone detective on a highly challenging case. He’d recently lost his wife and daughter in a fire, but he set out to find the missing children of Benjamin Pitezel, a man just murdered by the notorious serial killer, H. H. Holmes. The difficulty of this investigation lay not just in the killer’s clever maneuvers but also in the many places he’d taken the children and the different names he’d adopted to accomplish his dirty deeds. Holmes might have killed and discarded the children anywhere along his circuitous route. This book demonstrates the best work of a master detective. Geyer used the most tenuous leads to develop more. Some lead to dead ends, while others sent hm in a productive direction. Since reporters covered his journey from town to town, he enlisted them to elicit interest from witnesses in key locations. Piece by excruciating piece, Geyer completed the tragic puzzle.


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The Blooding: The Dramatic True Story of the First Murder Case Solved by Genetic "Fingerprinting"

By Joseph Wambaugh

The Blooding: The Dramatic True Story of the First Murder Case Solved by Genetic "Fingerprinting"

Why this book?

One of the most forensically significant cases in history, this gripping story shows how the first DNA analysis in a crime case identified a serial killer and exonerated an innocent man. Wambaugh, a bestselling true crime writer and former LAPD officer, effectively situates readers in an English village as he demonstrates the challenge of detective work with few resources and describes the serendipitous connection between science and cops that evolved into a landmark case. The crime landscape was never the same again. Detailed background stories and compelling dialogue enliven the tale, and the constabulary perspective is uniquely authentic.


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Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men

By Harold Schechter

Hell's Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men

Why this book?

Belle Sorrenson Gunness is a rare female serial killer who was exceptionally predatory. This Norwegian-American had insured her first husband and two of her children before killing them in the early 1900s to enrich herself. She bought a pig farm in LaPorte, Indiana, which she soon turned into her personal graveyard. The twice-widowed Belle published matrimonial ads, and those men who answered arrived, one after another, before each disappeared. She’d warned them not to reveal where they were going, but Andrew Helgelein did. When Andrew’s brother announced he was coming to look for him, Belle’s six-year spree abruptly ended in a house fire in which she seemed to have perished. A search of the property produced bodies and body parts. Before it was over, an estimated twelve to thirteen sets of remains had been removed from the ground. Schechter vivdly describes this case every step of the way, and dispels many of the myths surrounding “Lady Bluebeard.” He’s among the most meticulous researchers in true crime today, and this is one of his best books.


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