The best books about crime

3 authors have picked their favorite books about crime and why they recommend each book.

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Miracle Creek

By Angie Kim,

Book cover of Miracle Creek

The best books—legal thrillers or otherwise—transport you to an entirely different world. Miracle Creek does that as well as any book I’ve read in recent years. By the time I was finished, I not only felt like I’d gotten a masterclass in trial procedure, and was floored by the reveal, but I actually thought I’d learned something important about the immigrant experience as well as the difficulties all parents face in wanting to protect their children. 

Who am I?

I come by my love of legal thrillers honestly – when I’m not writing them, I’m living them as a full-time practicing lawyer. The cases in my real-life legal practice are far less exciting than those experienced by the lawyers in my books (or the books I’ve recommended here), but the throughline that connects them is that in reality and in fiction, the stakes are very high, the people involved have a motivation for what they’ve done, and the outcome is always in doubt until that last page. 

I wrote...

A Conflict of Interest

By Adam Mitzner,

Book cover of A Conflict of Interest

What is my book about?

At thirty-five, criminal defense attorney Alex Miller is the youngest partner at New York City’s most prestigious law firm, with the life he’s always dreamed of. When Alex’s father suddenly passes away, Alex is introduced to Michael Ohlig, a rich and powerful man who holds an almost mythical place in his family lore. But Alex is surprised when Ohlig admits that he’s in serious legal trouble, accused of a high-profile financial scam involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

When Alex takes on Ohlig’s defense, secrets are revealed that force Alex to question the motives of all the people in his life. Most importantly, he must decide whether the identity he projects to the world is the man he truly is—or even wants to be.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

By Alfred Doblin,

Book cover of Berlin Alexanderplatz

Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being, and so lives powerfully in the imagination. Döblin's breathlessly innovative 1929 masterpiece — the most important work of literature in the Weimar years, is as hypnotic and unpredictable as the city itself.

Who am I?

Rory MacLean is one of Britain's most innovative travel writers. His books – which have been translated into a dozen languages — include UK top tens Stalin's Nose and Under the Dragon as well as Pravda Ha Ha and Berlin: Imagine a City, "the most extraordinary work of history I've ever read" according to the Washington Post which named it a Book of the Year. He has won awards from the Canada Council and the Arts Council of England and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary prize. He divides his time between Berlin, Toronto and the UK.

I wrote...

Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries

By Rory MacLean,

Book cover of Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries

What is my book about?

Berlin is a city of fragments and ghosts, a laboratory of ideas, the fount of both the brightest and darkest designs of history's most bloody century. The once arrogant capital of Europe was devastated by Allied bombs, divided by the Wall, then reunited and reborn as one of the creative centers of the world. Today it resonates with the echo of lives lived. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful and fallen so low; few other cities have been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations.

Games Criminals Play

By Bud Allen, Diana Bosta,

Book cover of Games Criminals Play: How You Can Profit by Knowing Them

Manipulation is a simple art.

I require all students and mentees to read this book and keep it on their shelves. It is an easy read and contains information that will keep future law enforcement officers safe from inmate behavior. Civilians can apply these skills to everyday life to protect themselves as well. We call it “the trick bag”, falling for a simple ruse and landing as a pawn in an inmate’s game in prison. The “game” is a series of manipulations over time that might lead to the target’s incarceration, loss of job, and public humiliation. 

This book is an effective tool for offender management and exposing criminal scams. The examples are accurate and anyone can use the tools it discusses. The authors discuss the anatomy of the setup, susceptibility profiles of both inmate and target, survival traits, and more. It can start with a pencil and end with…

Who am I?

I am an award-winning true crime author, criminologist, and victims advocate who has written and presented on crime for over 30 years. I know that history teaches us how and why crime occurs and why it will happen again, but crime doesn't happen in a vacuum. History, personality, and human nature all play a part. There is always a "story behind the story." I appreciate true crime books that teach us rather than sensationalize. The faster we share knowledge, the easier it is to catch criminals.

I wrote...

When Nashville Bled: The untold stories of serial killer Paul Dennis Reid

By Judith A. Yates,

Book cover of When Nashville Bled: The untold stories of serial killer Paul Dennis Reid

What is my book about?

He was evil personified. In the Spring of 1997, a serial killer held Nashville, Tennessee in an icy grip of terror. Paul Dennis Reid, Jr. was caught and sentenced to seven death sentences, yet a new chapter began in the saga of one of the most heinous serial killers in our time, and the people whose lives he cut short. The victims were reduced to being called "the victims of Paul Reid." Until now. Here, for the first time, and with the approval of the family and friends, are the stories of those innocent, young people whose lives were ended far too soon. It is also the story of how a crime ripped a city apart.

The Mars Room

By Rachel Kushner,

Book cover of The Mars Room

The Mars Room is the bar in San Francisco where Romy Hall used to give lap dances. It’s also the catalyst for the event that landed her in a high-security women’s prison serving two consecutive life sentences far away from her seven-year-old son. In addition to the sky-high stakes and Kushner’s incisive prose, what thrilled me about this novel is the way it’s told, on dual tracks. The present is Romy’s experience of incarceration, and the past is a slow reveal of everything that led up to her imprisonment. The tension mounts and mounts until finally we learn the circumstances of her crime, infuriating evidence of the ways society sets women up to fail. 

Who am I?

I was raised in the Midwest by parents who told me I could have whatever kind of life I wanted. I took them at their word, never considering that my gender might come with limitations. It wasn’t until I had my first child and began investigating Paula’s case that the true complexity of womanhood began to dawn on me. I’ve since spent nine years reading and writing and thinking about the experience of being a woman in the modern world. 

I wrote...

What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood

By Katherine Dykstra,

Book cover of What Happened to Paula: An Unsolved Death and the Danger of American Girlhood

What is my book about?

One summer night in 1970, eighteen-year-old Paula Oberbroeckling left her house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and didn’t return. Four months later, her body was discovered just beyond the mouth of a culvert adjacent to the Cedar River. Her homicide has never been solved.

Paula’s case had been mostly forgotten when, 50 years later, journalist Katherine Dykstra began looking for answers. What begins as an inverstigation into an unsolved homicide, evolves into a reckoning about all the ways women are at risk in the world, simply by being women. Part true crime, part memoir, What Happened to Paula is a timely and important look at gender, autonomy, and the cost of being a woman.

We Are the Water People

By Troy Onyango,

Book cover of We Are the Water People: A Short Story

We Are the Water People is an eerie tale about how a community – human and supernatural – tries to process an unspeakable calamity on the shores of Lake Victoria. The telling is as deep and mysterious as the murky waters on which the story is set. I quickly became immersed in the poetry of the language and the moody atmosphere filling my headphones. 

Who am I?

Crime is intrinsically interesting. From an early age, we’re taught behavioral norms. Hearing of transgressions, we ask, “How’d this happen?... Is it true?... What’s the deeper meaning?” Audiobooks also have a unique ability to engage us. With my reporting background plus a historical novel under my belt, I began researching the real-life case behind Takers Mad, aiming to bring it to life with the intimacy, suspense, and power of an audio drama. Then I was gobsmacked to find fresh evidence in this Gilded Age murder. Now, with Khristine Hvam’s ultra-talented narration, I hope our work entertains and also leads listeners to ponder vital questions—just like the best crime audiobooks.

I wrote...

Takers Mad

By Luke Jerod Kummer,

Book cover of Takers Mad

What is my book about?

A tantalizing drama available exclusively on Audible, Takers Mad guides listeners down a shadowy path to explore a true-crime pulled from New York’s gritty past. As newspapers reported in the 1890s, a woman dubbed "Shakespeare" was found dead in a seedy hotel along Manhattan’s waterfront. The chilling scene recalled for press and police alike Jack the Ripper’s victims in London. After panic quickly spread, the city only sighed relief when detectives abruptly arrested an Algerian immigrant for the crime. But the question lingered—did authorities catch the right man?

Based on the author’s fresh research findings in this infamous real-life case, Takers Mad is a ruminative, atmospheric, and sometimes morbidly funny work of historical and literary suspense.

The Getaway

By Jim Thompson,

Book cover of The Getaway

The Getaway by Jim Thompson and the film directed by Sam Peckinpah is a gritty slice of noir and the classic story of a bank heist gone wrong. It’s a beautifully pulpy showcase for the twisted marriage of Doc and Carol, played by Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw with perfection in the film. It plunges you into the very core of moral ambiguity and the ending of the book is unexpected, sublime, and a sledgehammer to the head. A great first book and film to introduce a reader to noir styles.

Who am I?

As a writer of thrillers whose debut novel was considered Noir, I’ve always been fascinated by tales of characters that are not always the most likeable. Noir fiction is characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. Similar to its successful films, I love when you feel for an anti-hero. That despite their questionable motives, the author or director manages to make you root for them in the end.

I wrote...

Stalker Stalked

By Lee Matthew Goldberg,

Book cover of Stalker Stalked

What is my book about?

Lexi Mazur is a depressed, alcoholic, pill-popper whose only joy has become her reality TV shows, often fantasizing that the people on TV are a part of her world. After her boyfriend Steve leaves her, she fixates on the show Socialites and its star Magnolia Artois, following every facet of the girl’s life on social media in the hopes of befriending and becoming more like her. 

But stalking isn’t new to Lexi. She ultimately won over her ex Steve by following and manipulating every minute detail about him so he’d fall for her. In fact, she landed her other ex-boyfriend Jeremy in the same way. Being a pharma rep, she’s used to manipulation to get doctors to buy her drugs, along with the perk of saving pills for herself. But what happens when the stalker gets stalked? 

Masterpieces of Murder

By Jonathan Goodman,

Book cover of Masterpieces of Murder: The Best True Crime Writing from the Best Chroniclers of Murder

This collection features a range of stories, a range of time and places, written by many of the best true-crime writers. Goodman, himself a master storyteller, has pulled together a wide sampling of all manner of crimes stories, all well-told. Goodman wisely included his own likely solution to one of my favorite unsolved crimes, the Liverpool case of Julia Wallace, which has fascinated novelists from Raymond Chandler to Dorothy L. Sayers and P.D. James.

Who am I?

When I started writing mysteries, beginning with St. Martin’s Malice Award-winning Southern Fried, I wanted to get the medical, investigative, and courtroom details right. What better resource than good first-hand accounts from professionals who do those things every day? I must admit that, over several decades now, I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. Real life is full of stories that, if told as fiction, would leave readers rolling their eyes in disbelief. The gruesome and cruel don’t interest me. I’m drawn to the storytellers who can capture the worst moments and turn them into finely written, compelling, accurate stories, showing us the complexity of life. 

I wrote...

Charlotte True Crime Stories: Notorious Cases from Fraud to Serial Killing

By Cathy Pickens,

Book cover of Charlotte True Crime Stories: Notorious Cases from Fraud to Serial Killing

What is my book about?

Crimes that captivated the Charlotte area over the years run the gamut from missing people to the wrongly accused. This collection of headline stories features a little woman who got away with murder, violent motorcycle gangs, crusading mothers, a fraudster who claimed a president was poisoned by his wife, a serial killer who broke all the rules, and even the man who made Bigfoot. With a mystery novelist's ear for a good tale, Cathy Pickens presents more than a century of sensational sinister deeds that marked this diverse and dynamic city.

Vengeance and Justice

By Edward L. Ayers,

Book cover of Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century American South

This is a classic, pioneering study of the major elements of southern crime and punishment at a time that saw the formation of the fundamental patterns of class and race—and how they shaped the South’s criminal justice system.  Ayers studies the inner workings of the police, prison, and judicial systems, and the nature of crime, while at the same time adeptly linking the antebellum with the post-bellum criminal justice system. 

Who am I?

I am a professor of history and Director of the Lawton M. Chiles Jr. Center for Florida History at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. I am a specialist in Southern, social, criminal justice, and legal history. I am the author or co-author of seven books, including three that address criminal justice at the state and federal level. My articles and reviews on criminal justice history have appeared in the America Historical Review, American Journal of Legal History, Journal of Southern History, Florida Historical Quarterly, Florida Bar Journal, and Georgia Historical Quarterly.

I wrote...

A Rogue's Paradise: Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Florida, 1821-1861

By James M. Denham,

Book cover of A Rogue's Paradise: Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Florida, 1821-1861

What is my book about?

A Rogue’s Paradise paints a portrait of law-breaking and law enforcement on the Florida frontier. Using court records, government documents, newspapers, and personal papers, the book explores how crime affected ordinary Floridians - whites and blacks, perpetrators, victims, and enforcers. I contend that although the frontier determined the enforcement and administration of the law, the ethic of honor dominated human relationships. The narrative traces the growth and development of this sparsely settled region through its experience with crime and punishment.

Among the issues examined are Florida’s criminal code, its judicial and law enforcement officers, the accommodation of criminals in jails and courts, outlaw gangs, patterns of punishment, and the attitude of the public toward lawbreakers. Much of the story is told through the lives of those who participated in the Florida criminal justice system at all levels: criminal, sheriff, judge, jury member, and victim.

Devil's Peak

By Deon Meyer,

Book cover of Devil's Peak

Character-driven, brilliantly absorbing, genuinely exciting, and richly atmospheric – for me, all the attributes of a rewarding crime novel. Meyer’s almost broken protagonist, Benny Griessel, is a policeman whose personal and professional lives interleave with witnesses, associates, and perpetrators, making him both intensely vulnerable but, also, highly effective. Against the backdrop of both a dark and a blindingly bright Cape Town, Meyer describes brilliantly the motivations and circumstances that bring each of his characters into conflict, making for a nail-biting read.

Who am I?

Africa can easily become an obsession: an extraordinary continent, blessed with breath-taking beauty and wonderful people, yet cursed by climate, corruption, war, and… crime. This continent is the most incredible setting for stories about people driven to crime, victims of crime, the detection of crime. Based in the UK, but a frequent visitor to Southern Africa, having written many non-fiction books, South Africa (and Cape Town in particular) was always going to be my choice of setting for my crime novels. For me, a good novel – within any genre – transports the reader into an unfamiliar world, absorbs them in the lives of the characters, and reveals insights which touch on their own lives.

I wrote...

The First Rule Of Survival

By Paul Mendelson,

Book cover of The First Rule Of Survival

What is my book about?

Seven years ago, three schoolboys disappear from the streets of Cape Town in broad daylight. They were never seen again.

Now, a new case for Colonel Vaughn de Vries threatens to re-open the case, laying bare, not only his own failures, but an institutional conspiracy of silence and cover-up. Struggling in a mire of departmental and racial rivalry, De Vries seeks the whole truth and an absolute end to the case that has haunted him for all the intervening years. Battling media personalities and vested interests, he turns to a friend - former British intelligence agent, John Marantz – but what motives does he have, and what price must be paid for the keys can he turn?

Pop. 1280

By Jim Thompson,

Book cover of Pop. 1280

I was introduced to this book through Tavernier’s brilliant adaptation, Clean Slate (Coup de Torchon, 1981). Set in Texas, Thompson’s novel was published in 1964, during the Civil Rights Movement, and it offers a portrait of petty-minded racism in the continuing aftermath of slavery. Tavernier’s adaptation transposes the story to 1930s French colonial West Africa. I remain haunted by the ways the two settings illuminate each other. Tavernier’s blending of a deadly serious historical crisis with touches of comedy—slapstick even—brings both eras and the novel itself to life in enjoyable and instructive ways.

Who am I?

I'm a recently retired Professor of French literature and cinema studies at Dartmouth College. Because I love both books and movies, I developed a course on adaptation, which I taught with pleasure for many years. I wanted to give students the opportunity to learn how to analyze literary texts and films, separately and in juxtaposition, and they especially enjoyed discovering how the “same” story works quite differently in different media. In addition to the two volumes on Tavernier, my published books include New Novel, New Wave, New Politics: Fiction and the Representation of History in Postwar France; Parables of Theory: Jean Ricardou’s Metafiction; and Rape and Representation (co-edited with Brenda Silver).

I wrote...

Bertrand Tavernier

By Lynn A. Higgins,

Book cover of Bertrand Tavernier

What is my book about?

Bertrand Tavernier is one of the most important French film directors in the generation that followed the New Wave. His oeuvre spans many historical periods and genres, including historical dramas, documentaries, science fiction, melodramas, intimate portraits of (fictional) artists, and even comedy. In the United States, he is best known for A Sunday in the Country [Un Dimanche à la campagne, 1984] about an aging post-impressionist painter in the period just before World War I, and Round Midnight [Autour de minuit, 1986], about an American jazz musician in 1950s Paris. Some of his most interesting and memorable films (including A Sunday in the Country) are adaptations.

Note: Readers who enjoy his films and/or my book about him might also want to delve deeper into his reflections about his individual films in my co-edited Bertrand Tavernier Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, pb 2022).

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