‘Making a Murderer’. ‘Mommy Dead and Dearest’. ‘Serial’. There’s no denying that people are obsessed with true-crime stories. While most viewers get their true-crime fix through movies, TV and podcasts, there also exists a trove of true-crime literature just waiting to be explored. Here are seven terrific works that shed light on the darker and stranger aspects of real human lives (and deaths).
1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Arguably the book that founded the true crime genre, In Cold Blood documents the 1959 murder of a well-to-do Kansas farmer and his young family, and the aftermath of that crime as the two men accused of the crime face justice. Unlike most true crime novels, the most fascinating aspect of the book may not be its subject but its author, Capote. A man known just as much for his flamboyant personality and libertine tastes as his beautiful prose, Capote grew incredibly close to one of the killers, Perry Smith—and was reportedly so broken up by the execution of the convicted pair that he descended into a fog of drugs and alcohol, ultimately succumbing to liver failure at the age of 59. Whatever reason you choose to read it, this is one book that refuses to be forgotten.
- Columbine by David Cullen
The site of a devastating 1999 school shooting, Columbine High School was transformed into a touchstone of American decay and teenage malevolence before the shooting had even stopped. Ten years later, Cullen, who covered the massacre as a journalist, sought to set the record straight about the two gunmen and the misery they unleashed on an unsuspecting community in the wake of lingering misconceptions and outright lies born perpetuated by the media. Sweeping away sensational stories of boorish jocks and the “Trench Coat Mafia”, Cullen devotes himself to the cold facts of the crime and the emotional truth of its impact. Columbine is as much a testimony to the resilience of the survivors as it is an account of their attackers’ inhumanity.
- The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
In 1971, Ann Rule was volunteering at a suicide crisis hotline when she befriended the handsome young man working the phones alongside her. His name? Ted Bundy. Though she had no way of knowing it, the future true-crime mainstay was given a front-row seat to Bundy’s shocking serial murders, watching as the friend who brought her coffee and drove a Volkswagen bug quickly morphed into an unrepentant murderer of more than 30 women and girls. In the vein of Capote, Rule’s connection to her subject can be more than unnerving—she sent Bundy money during his imprisonment fruitlessly tried to save him from execution by having him committed to a mental hospital—but her account of the charming man who fooled everyone remains valuable nearly forty years on.
- The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
Not all true crime books have to revolve around murder, as Orlean gamely proves in this 1999 work. Adapted from her New Yorker article, the Orchid Thief tells the whimsical tale of John Laroche, a passionate rogue caught stealing hundreds of rare orchids from a Florida Preserve, and the flower-crazy community Orlean finds herself joining in his wake. Though the book and its writer were later dramatized to hilarious effect in the acclaimed film Adaptation, those seeking a lighter take on the nature of true-crime passion and obsession would be wise to check out the source material.
- The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
A bustling World’s Fair. A friendly hotel proprietor. What could go wrong? The answer, of course, is everything. H.H. Holmes, the eponymous “devil”, murdered an unknown number of fair visitors with a custom-built elaborate death trap masquerading as housing. Larson insisted to doing all of his own research for the book, relying only on primary sources, and his commitment to not only the content of the Holmes’ crimes but the nature of his world is admirable. By combining unimaginable horror with the wonder of turn-of-the-century America, Larson strikes just the right balance between the macabre and informative aspects of Holmes and his alluring city.
- The Skies Belong to Us by Brendan Koerner
Along with a vibrant counterculture and monumental social change, nineteen sixties and early seventies America was also marked by an epidemic of commercial plane hijackings—159 in total from 1961 to 1972. Koerner details those hijackings in this dynamite read, but centers it around one particular crime: the takeover of a 1972 Western Airlines flight to Seattle by childhood friends turned Vietnam War-protesting skyjackers Roger Holder and Kathy Kerkow. The longest-distance skyjacking in American history, the situation was eventually defused with no injuries and provided a narrative so bizarre that it almost defies belief. Like the best true-crime writers, Koerner is a wizard at capturing not only the events of a crime but the feel of an entire time and culture.
- We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun J
Amy Biehl, a Fulbright Scholar dedicated to social justice, was brutally murdered by a group of black Cape Town residents during the waning days of Apartheid in South Africa. Four of those men are tried and convicted for her murder. Two of the convicted are welcomed with open arms Biehl’s forgiving parents. The world embraces the story as an example of a resurgent, newly integrated South Africa freeing itself of its noxious hatred. But as van der Leun, herself an American living in South Africa shows, from the first brick thrown nothing was ever that simple. Demonstrating how the well-established record of Biehl’s death quickly disappears into the realm of uncertainty under closer inspection, van der Leun never stops disassembling a community and a country unable and unwilling to dig beyond the stories it tells itself.
Featured image courtesy of Salon