The best criminal books

30 authors have picked their favorite books about criminals and why they recommend each book.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley

By Patricia Highsmith,

Book cover of The Talented Mr. Ripley

This is a classic psychological thriller about a social climber, complete with murder and stolen identity. There's something about Tom Ripley, who fenagles his way into the upper-crust world of Dickie Greenleaf, son of a wealthy shipping magnate. Ripley is immoral and ruthless, but also needy and sad, a complicated character who evokes sympathy even as he does terrible things. This book asks the question: What if you could take the place of a person who has everything you ever dreamed of? Would you do it? And if you did, how would you keep from getting caught? 


Who am I?

My novel, Right Back Where We Started From, is about greed. I wanted to see what it would look like if women in history pursued their goals with the same relentless intensity as the men who came to the California Gold Rush. I love reading about social climbing because ambition is so baked into the fabric of the United States, and is such a big part of our lives. The books on this list are unafraid to show you the ugly, unpleasant side of ambition—and the exciting, captivating side as well. 


I wrote...

Right Back Where We Started From

By Joy Lanzendorfer,

Book cover of Right Back Where We Started From

What is my book about?

Sandra Sanborn believes she's destined to become rich and famous. Success, she feels, is in her blood, and it's only a matter of time before she restores her family name to a place of prominence. But when pesky secrets start revealing themselves, Sandra begins to suspect that her family history is not what she thinks it is. This sweeping saga about greed and ambition covers three generations of strong women and a hundred years of history, from the California Gold Rush to World War II. 

A Clockwork Orange

By Anthony Burgess,

Book cover of A Clockwork Orange

Burgess blew me away with how he used the number of chapters to tell a story in and of itself. 

There are 21 chapters in Clockwork, and Burgess revealed in interviews that that number is quite purposeful; the book is about a boy maturing into a man, and Burgess used 21 chapters since that is the age at which people are legally considered adults in his homeland of England. 

This book taught me that restricting myself on purpose (the way Burgess limited himself to exactly 21 chapters) would enhance my creativity, not hinder it. I also liked how he created his own slang for his characters and used it without explanation in the book, allowing his readers to suss it out from context. I liked that confidence. 


Who am I?

The influence of the books listed below, particularly I Am Legend and The Lathe of Heaven, led me to dedicate myself to writing shorter novels. In a world where many novels sprawl into the thousand-page mark, where world-building can overwhelm character and plot, I’m focused on writing tight, layered narratives where every sentence matters. No fluff, no padding, just character development, plot, and exploration of theme. I primarily write sci-fi mystery novels, and mystery readers want the who-what-when-where-how, characters they can root for, and a mystery they get obsessed with solving. I aim to give them exactly that—and very little else—to keep the story exciting. 


I wrote...

Artificial Detective: An Off-World Mystery

By Dave Terruso,

Book cover of Artificial Detective: An Off-World Mystery

What is my book about?

The first colony on Earth’s moon has just had its first murder. I’ve been tasked with catching the killer. My name is Coba. I’m a robot with artificial general intelligence, meaning I can learn any intellectual task a human being can.

A colonist is found with his neck snapped and his heart cut out. The heart is missing. A suspect is in custody, but something doesn’t add up. Strange events start to unfold, including a rash of bizarre sleepwalking incidents. The colonists’ conflicting accounts of the murder make me wonder if everyone is lying to me. I realize the killer wants to play a game with me when a gift box shows up in my room. Inside is the victim’s missing heart.

East End Underworld

By Raphael Samuel (editor),

Book cover of East End Underworld: Chapters in the Life of Arthur Harding

In a series of interviews, Arthur Harding tells us of his life as an East End rogue at the turn of the century. The characters he encountered are a “Who’s Who” of the underworld at that time and his descriptions of Spitalfields were very useful to me during research for The Worst Street In London.


Who am I?

Fiona Rule is a writer, researcher, and historian specialising in the history of London. ​ She is the author of five books: The Worst Street In London, London's Docklands, London's Labyrinth, Streets Of Sin, and The Oldest House In London. ​ A regular contributor to television and radio programmes, Fiona also has her own company, House Histories, which specialises in researching the history of people's homes. She holds an Advanced Diploma in Local History from the University of Oxford.


I wrote...

The Worst Street in London

By Fiona Rule,

Book cover of The Worst Street in London

What is my book about?

Amid the bustling streets of Spitalfields, East London, lies an anonymous office block. The average pedestrian wouldn't even notice it, but beneath its foundations lies all that remains of Dorset Street – The worst street in London: once the resort of thieves, conmen, pimps, prostitutes, and murderers, most notably Jack the Ripper.

This book chronicles the rise and fall of this remarkable street, from its promising beginnings, through its gradual descent into iniquity, vice, and violence, to its final demise at the hands of the demolition men. This remarkable story gives a fascinating insight into an area of London that has always been a cultural melting pot and the place where many thousands of migrants became Londoners. It also tells the story of a part of the capital that, until quite recently, was largely left to fend for itself, with truly horrifying results.

Till Death Us Do Part

By Vincent Bugliosi, Ken Hurwitz,

Book cover of Till Death Us Do Part: A True Murder Mystery

Best known for Helter Skelter--his classic 1975 true crime memoir on prosecuting the Manson family, former Los Angeles deputy DA Vincent Bugliosi wrote this book later about a complicated but lesser-known double-homicide case he tried in 1966, three years before the Manson murders occurred. As the prosecutor on these cases, Bugliosi boasted access to background details that only an insider can share, merging psychological analysis with trial strategy concerns. Echoing themes of the noir thriller Double Indemnity, this true account unveils the plot of two lovers to murder their respective spouses and explains the complex police work required to catch them.

Who am I?

During my 45-year career as a newspaper and magazine journalist, I covered a wide range of events on a daily basis. As a police and courts reporter for two daily newspapers, I spent many hours researching and writing about crime and legal affairs. As a reader, I’ve enjoyed true crime. As the target of a true-crime myself in 1980, however, I became more fascinated with the sub-genre of the true-crime memoir in which a participant in a true-crime shares insider details of the story without seeking pity or glorification from the reader through objectivity and self-deprecating humor. It’s a fine line. When an author manages to walk it, however, the result proves inspirational.


I wrote...

Luggage by Kroger: A True Crime Memoir

By Gary Taylor,

Book cover of Luggage by Kroger: A True Crime Memoir

What is my book about?

Luggage by Kroger is my memoir of a year when, as a Houston newspaper reporter, I survived a true-life Fatal Attraction adventure that culminated with my attempted murder in 1980 at the hands of a notorious female attorney. Twice optioned for movies, this story made me the poster boy for true-life Fatal Attraction appearances on Oprah, Regis, 48 Hours, and other television programs. Since its publication in 2008, Luggage by Kroger has been a fixture on the Kindle Store’s lists of bestselling true crime and criminology titles, attracting rave reviews and winning five national book awards.

A Cargo of Women

By Babette Smith,

Book cover of A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the Princess Royal

Thoroughly enjoyed reading about the various fates of a shipload full of convict women who at the time were barely more than chattels of men. Susannah Watson was one of many women who stole in England to feed her starving children and found herself transported for 14 years (which in reality became a lifetime). These survivor women were inspiring and resilient in a pioneering time.


Who am I?

Dr. Samantha Battams is an Associate Professor and has been a university lecturer, researcher, policy professional, community development worker, advocate, health service administrator, and management consultant. Samantha resides in Adelaide, South Australia, is widely travelled, and has lived and worked in Switzerland in global health. She has published academic articles and book chapters in the fields of public health and global health, social policy, and sociology. She has a passion for history and writing and has written a self-published family history and three non-fiction books.


I wrote...

The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner

By Samantha Battams,

Book cover of The Secret Art of Poisoning: The True Crimes of Martha Needle, the Richmond Poisoner

What is my book about?

How did a serial killer from the 19th century almost get away with murder? At the end of the 19th century, Martha Needle became known as ‘The Black Widow’ after secretly poisoning her husband and children. The Black Widow was a media sensation in her day, as infamous as Ned Kelly (even sharing the same lawyer). After poisoning her husband and two of her children, Needle became obsessed with the kind-hearted son of a Danish immigrant and began picking off his brothers one by one. Reported as far afield as the New York Times, Martha’s story was front-page news in Australia, edging out many stories of the day that remain in the public consciousness today. And yet very few remember Martha Needle’s name.

Stranger still a generation later Martha Needle’s nephew Alexander Lee seemed to follow in his aunt’s footsteps when he poisoned his wife and three of his children. What strange quirk of fate led these two relatives connected through family to commit virtually the same crime? 

Tsotsi

By Athol Fugard,

Book cover of Tsotsi

Having grown up in South Africa during apartheid and witnessed how the appalling regime destroyed so many lives, I was profoundly affected by this read. It takes place in the sprawling black township of Soweto at the height of apartheid, where survival was a daily battle for the oppressed and marginalised inhabitants. To this end, Tsoti, an apparently heartless young township thug, lives a life of brutal crime. That is until he unwittingly kidnaps a baby during a bungled carjacking. Forced to care for the infant, Tsotsi gradually rediscovers his own humanity. The reader can’t help but be moved from a place of horror to one of deep understanding and empathy for the main character – a remarkable feat for any author. A compelling story of hope.


Who am I?

Growing up in a house filled with books – my father was a publisher –  meant that I fell in love with the written word at an early age. Growing up in apartheid South Africa and witnessing the brutal regime at work meant that I was sensitised to issues of injustice and racial prejudice at an early age too, issues which would come to inform much of my writing. I’ve always been drawn to the underdog’s story and often write to shine a light on the lives of the marginalised. My first literary heroes were brave authors such as Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard, and Alan Paton, who used their pens to provoke change. 


I wrote...

Another Woman's Daughter

By Fiona Sussman,

Book cover of Another Woman's Daughter

What is my book about?

Set against the violent backdrop of apartheid South Africa and then the calm of late-twentieth-century Britain, Another Woman’s Daughter (Shifting Colours) tells the tale of a little black girl, Miriam, who captures the heart of a childless white couple while her mother is working as a maid for them in the suburbs of Johannesburg. When the couple decides to leave South Africa following the Sharpeville uprising, they ask to adopt Miriam. The decision Miriam’s mother makes is one she makes out of love, but it is a decision which comes to haunt all the characters, the outcome so different from what was intended.

A powerful and affecting story of a mother and daughter separated by land, sea, and heartrending circumstance.

Diamond Doris

By Doris Payne, Zelda Lockhart,

Book cover of Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World's Most Notorious Jewel Thief

This is a rollicking read about the criminal adventures of Doris Payne, jewel thief extraordinaire who started her career in the United States in the 1950s. She saw herself as a crusader, and stealing diamonds as an act of retribution against a racist world. Doris continued her career until 2017, often updating and refining the methods once used by her Victorian forebears.


Who am I?

I first became fascinated by the portrayal of female criminals when I wrote a novel, The Ghost of Lily Painter, based on the first women to be executed at Holloway Prison in London in 1903. Holloway was the most infamous female jail in Europe and shortly before it closed down in 2016, I was given access to the prison archives. That led to Bad Girls, nominated for the Orwell Prize, and it also led to the discovery of a forgotten criminal aristocracy -  the women who were once so notorious they were Public Enemy No.1. 


I wrote...

Queens of the Underworld: A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks

By Caitlin Davies,

Book cover of Queens of the Underworld: A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks

What is my book about?

Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Ronnie Biggs, the Krays… All have become folk heroes, glamorised, and romanticised, even when they killed. But where are their female equivalents? Queens of the Underworld reveals the incredible true story of female crooks from the 17th century to the present - including street robbers, gang leaders, diamond thieves, hoisters, bandits, gold smugglers, burglars, getaway drivers, and bank robbers.

Every age has had its share of notorious female criminals, yet their stories have been lost. Queens of the Underworld puts them back in the history books.

The Hunter

By Richard Stark,

Book cover of The Hunter

Professional thief Parker claws his way back from vagrancy and single-handedly takes on "The Outfit," a sub-syndicate of the national Mafia, in order to get revenge on the man who shot and robbed him – and used his own wife to help him do it.

This wasn't the first Parker novel I read, but it was one of the books that made me truly love the character. Parker is an outsider, but he has ties to the mob, and they first close ranks when he threatens one of their own. But when Parker's target is shown to be weaker than he's presented himself, the sharks smell the blood in the water and begin circling, seeing opportunities to rid themselves of dead weight and maybe promote themselves within the organization, until it's a matter of letting Parker have his way or his destroying them all.

"Family" and "honor" and so forth…


Who am I?

I both read and write a lot of crime fiction, but organized crime is an aspect that I find fascinating. More than gangs of criminals, less than families, but still somehow very similar… I did a lot of research on real organized crime and re-read some of my favorite fiction pieces when I first had the idea for this novel and along the way, I realized that family is what you make of it and these people—and these characters—are yearning for a place to belong – something that really speaks to me, and has made me a fan of this kind of fiction.


I wrote...

Burn Me Out

By Brandon Barrows,

Book cover of Burn Me Out

What is my book about?

Al Vacarro is a made man, with all the honors and responsibilities that entails. But after a literal lifetime of violence in service to the Castella crime family, Al’s past is catching up with him and neither his present nor any future he can imagine seems to hold any hope for salvation.

For the sake of his family and his very soul, he needs out of “the life.” But how does a man escape the only world he’s ever known? This is a story of blood and desperation, and these are the last twenty-four hours of life as Al knows it.

The Man with the Golden Arm

By Nelson Algren,

Book cover of The Man with the Golden Arm

Algren has been called a proletarian writer. Working primarily in Chicago from the 1930s to the 1950s, he was intensely concerned with the plight of the common man. His milieux were the gambling dens, the sawdust bars, the decaying hooker-prowled streets, the beat-down police stations, the shooting galleries, the slums, the cheap walk-up flats where broken men and women fought each other in desperate battles to survive one more miserable day. His characters were the poor, the ignorant, the addicted, tramps, bums, card sharps, petty crims, accidental murderers... But in all of them he found something human, something that might have been good, might have been worthy of a decent life – if only it had been given half a chance.


Who am I?

Matthew Stokoe has been translated and published around the world, his books have set new boundaries in urban horror and gritty, pull-no-punches noir. After Cows, Stokoe turned his sights on Hollywood, producing the now-famous High Life – both a page-turning mystery and one of the most brutal critiques of Tinsel Town ever committed to fiction. Stokoe has continued to explore his uniquely dark view of lives lived in the modern world, and in 2014 was nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière – France’s most prestigious crime writing award – for his novel, Empty Mile. Colony of Whores, is his latest novel.


I wrote...

Colony of Whores

By Matthew Stokoe,

Book cover of Colony of Whores

What is my book about?

When a failed screenwriter inherits a screenplay that may hold the key to both a sensational Hollywood murder and to his own sister's death, he is drawn into the dangerous twilight world that lurks at the edge of the movie business. Aided by a disgraced former journalist and a maverick female filmmaker bent on destroying the traditional Hollywood hierarchy, he begins a journey of revenge and personal salvation that will pit him against the owners of one of the most powerful and corrupt film companies in Los Angeles.

Manson in His Own Words

By Charles Manson,

Book cover of Manson in His Own Words

I’m fascinated by the Manson family; my big bad in my book is essentially doing a Charlie impression, so I’ve read a lot about America’s Boogeyman. This autobiography stands out from the crowd because of its absolutely bonkers voice. Every trigger warning in the world applies, but there are two worthwhile aspects to this lurid tale: one, how much institutional violence created Manson, who spent his adolescence and young adult life in the penal system (when they released him at 32 he begged to stay in jail.) And two, how the charismatic “family” could easily pass for some carefree Instagram influencers these days.  


Who am I?

Since my mom pressed an Agatha Christie into my hands at age eight, I’ve been fascinated by mystery novels; when I got older that bled into true crime, and from there psychological non-fiction about psychopathy. What evolutionary purpose do psychopaths serve, is this a label we can confidently assign people or is the spectrum of human behavior a gray horizon we’re still approaching? These are questions I’m always happy to spend an hour or six debating, and this interest in psychopaths was definitely heightened by learning I’m closely related to one. 


I wrote...

Teen Killers Club

By Lily Sparks,

Book cover of Teen Killers Club

What is my book about?

Teen Killers Club follows a sensitive outcast who was framed for her best friend’s murder, then recruited into an assassin training program at an abandoned summer camp with a group of heartless teen killers. She must fit in or die trying.


Teen Killers Club is one of YALSA’s top ten “quick picks for reluctant readers” and a nominee for the International Thriller Writers Award, and begins the Teen Killers Series; its sequel Teen Killers in Love is out August 9th, 2022.

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