The best true stories that read like police procedurals

Who am I?

Considered one of the foremost explanatory writers and literary stylists in American journalism, Margalit Fox retired in June 2018 from a 24-year-career at the New York Times, where she was most recently a senior writer. As a member of the newspaper’s celebrated Obituary News Department, she wrote the front-page sendoffs of some of the leading public figures of our age. The author of three previous books, Conan Doyle for the Defense, The Riddle of the Labyrinth, and Talking Hands, she lives in Manhattan.

I wrote...

The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History

By Margalit Fox,

Book cover of The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History

What is my book about?

The astonishing true story of two WW1 prisoners who pulled off one of the most ingenious escapes of all time. Two British officers, Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, are imprisoned in a remote Turkish POW camp after having survived a two-month forced march and a terrifying shootout in the desert. To stave off despair and boredom, Jones takes a handmade Ouija board and fakes elaborate séances for his fellow prisoners. Word gets around camp, and one day an Ottoman official approaches Jones with a query: Could Jones contact the spirit world to find a vast treasure rumored to be buried nearby? Jones, a trained lawyer, and Hill, a brilliant magician, use the Ouija board—and their keen understanding of the psychology of deception—to build a trap for their captors that will ultimately lead them to freedom. 

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called The Confidence Men a "marvelous history," adding: "Readers will be mesmerized by this rich and rewarding tale." 

The books I picked & why

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The Soul of a New Machine

By Tracy Kidder,

Book cover of The Soul of a New Machine

Why this book?

Originally published in 1981 and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, Kidder’s book takes readers on a journey into what was, for most of us, terra incognita: the race to design a new, cutting-edge minicomputer known as the Eclipse MV/8000. Given sustained access to the engineering and marketing teams at Data General, a now-defunct Massachusetts company, Kidder chronicles the challenges, rivalries, setbacks and triumphs that their formidable task entailed, in a lyrical narrative that makes the art of creating a small(ish) computer from scratch compulsively readable and propulsively accessible.


By Tracy Kidder,

Book cover of House

Why this book?

Kidder is—high praise—a process freak, and his books are the gold standard for nonfiction procedurals. In House (1985), the follow-up to The Soul of a New Machine, he documents one of the most fundamental processes of all: the building of a home. At the center of the narrative is a young professional couple, Judith and Jonathan Souweine, who have commissioned the design and building of a house in Amherst, Mass. Kidder follows their odyssey from groundbreaking to moving in, giving readers a behind-the-scenes look not only at his protagonists’ family life but also at the craft challenges that architects and builders face in conjuring a functional, beautiful and habitable building. The book is at the bottom a contrapuntal dance—at times dissonant, ultimately harmonious—as the Souweines, their brilliant young architect and a team of local builders learn to reconcile their sometimes competing visions.

The Medical Detectives: The Classic Collection of Award-Winning Medical Investigative Reporting

By Berton Roueché,

Book cover of The Medical Detectives: The Classic Collection of Award-Winning Medical Investigative Reporting

Why this book?

Long before Dr. Gregory House, there were the real-life doctors and scientists who were Berton Roueché’s perennial subjects. Roueché, a writer for the New Yorker for many years, reported on their dazzling detective work in the magazine’s “Annals of Medicine” columns. This volume collects two dozen of his most elegant pieces, which follow step by step the unraveling of a spate of medical mysteries: identifying the bewildering illness that affected residents of a small South Dakota town, discovering why a patient suddenly lost his sense of taste, fingering the ordinary but unlikely culprit that made a man turn orange, and much else.

Survive the Savage Sea

By Dougal Robertson,

Book cover of Survive the Savage Sea

Why this book?

In January 1971, the Scotsman Dougal Robertson embarked with his wife and children on what was to be the dream of a lifetime: an extended sea voyage aboard their 43-foot wooden schooner, the Lucette. Eighteen months later, as she plied the Pacific some 200 miles west of the Galapagos, the Lucette was rammed by a pod of killer whales; the Robertsons had barely enough time to flee the ship before it sank. They spent the next 37 days adrift, first in the ship’s inflatable raft and later, after the raft gave out, in its tiny dinghy. They braved storms, sharks, and the perpetual lack of food and fresh water before they were rescued by a passing ship. First published in 1973, Robertson’s gripping, day-by-day account of their ingenious survival tactics is a classic of the castaway-narrative genre.

The Wooden Horse: The Classic World War II Story of Escape

By Eric Williams,

Book cover of The Wooden Horse: The Classic World War II Story of Escape

Why this book?

In 1942, Williams, a pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, was shot down on a bombing mission over Germany. Taken prisoner, he was eventually sent to Stalag-Luft III, a high-security prison camp—considered escape-proof—in what is now Poland. Though The Wooden Horse, published in 1949, is sometimes described as a novel, it is a true-life account of his escape from the camp, with some names changed and some details lightly fictionalized. Working in secret and under constant surveillance, Williams and two fellow POWs constructed a 20th-century Trojan Horse that allowed them to tunnel out of camp under the noses of their formidable German captors. Williams’s book, and the 1950 film of the same name, are what first drew me to the crystalline procedural rigor of POW escape narratives. My love of the genre propelled me to write The Confidence Men, the story of the most unusual POW escape in history—involving no tunneling, no weapons, and no violence of any kind.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in police procedurals, medicine, and detectives?

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Police Procedurals Explore 24 books about police procedurals
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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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