What is it about true crime that makes it so popular? Even with the abundance of TV procedurals, books about real-life murders and other crimes remain popular, and many of them have in turn been adapted for the screen. Chalk it up to our fascination with the worst among us, and the chill of learning how easily people can go from being productive members of society to killers sent over the edge by circumstance or insanity. Here are 25 standouts in the field that take a detailed look at some of the most notorious crimes in history:
1. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (1966)
The 1959 murders of the Clutter family in small-town Kansas were gruesome, but they took on epic proportions when Truman Capote recorded the events for his “nonfiction novel” that used journalistic techniques and authorial flair to tell a true crime story like never before. The finished product was a landmark in the development of the true crime genre and cemented Capote’s status as one of the most important writers of his day. The book was turned into a film in 1967, and Capote’s investigation and writing were further dramatized in the biographical Capote in 2005.
2. Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974)
The Tate-LaBianca murders, committed in 1969 by Charles Manson and his unstable followers, garnered national attention and turned Manson’s name into a synonym for evil. Vincent Bugliosi was the attorney who prosecuted Manson, and the book’s title comes from the Beatles song “Helter Skelter,” which was one of the tracks from the group that Manson claimed contained messages and instructions impending race wars. Co-authored by Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter is one of the best-selling true crime books of all time, and it inspired a pair of TV-movies (one in 1976, the second in 2004) as well as the 2008 horror film The Strangers.
3. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon (1991)
David Simon, a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, spent a year with local homicide detectives to write this engrossing account of murder, drugs, and society that wound up winning an Edgar Award. Simon weaves together four main cases and a host of other facts to present a nuanced view of the world from the street. The book was the basis of the NBC series “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” and would also serve as inspiration for HBO’s “The Wire.”
4. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson (2003)
Erik Larson’s sweeping historical crime volume details the events of the World’s Columbian Exposition, an 1893 event in Chicago held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World. The book follows the exploits of Daniel Burnham, the chief architect of the fair, and H.H. Holmes, a hotelier who used the fair as a hunting ground for victims and became one of America’s first serial killers.
5. Crime and Science: The New Frontier in Criminology, Jurgen Thorwald (1967)
German author Jurgen Thorwald is known for his body of work devoted to forensic science as a crimefighting method, and his Crime and Science remains one of the most informative accounts of the field, though technology has since come to supplement or adjust many of the mid-century techniques.
6. Doctor Dealer: The Rise and Fall of an All-American Boy and His Multimillion-Dollar Cocaine Empire, Mark Bowden (2000)
Although he might be better known for his 1999 war narrative Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden has turned his journalistic eye more than once toward true crime. Doctor Dealer
7. Wiseguy, Nicholas Pileggi (1986)
Crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi worked with former mobster Henry Hill to construct this riveting insider’s account of life in the Luchese crime family. Hill’s criminal exploits included involvement in 1978′s Lufthansa heist at JFK International Airport, the biggest cash robbery at the time in the country. Hill eventually turned on his fellow gangsters and entered the Witness Protection Program. The book was famously adapted to film as Martin Scorsese’s 1990 classic, GoodFellas.
8. Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, Joseph D. Pistone (1987)
Joseph Pistone was an FBI agent who spent six years undercover in order to get close to members of the Bonanno crime family in New York City. His fake identity was that of Donnie Brasco, a jeweler and thief. The book he wrote about his time details his close calls and intricate field work required to rise through the ranks of the family. Johnny Depp portrayed Pistone in the 1997 film based on the book.
9. Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster, Harold Schechter (1998)
Harold Schechter’s Bestial tells the tale of Earle Leonard Nelson, one of the nation’s earlier serial killers. Beginning in the winter of 1926, Nelson went on a killing spree in the U.S. and Canada in which he murdered a variety of woman across far-flung locations with no apparent motive other than pure destruction.
10. Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story of a Doctor Who Got Away With Murder, James B. Stewart (2000)
A former lawyer turned reporter who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the 1987 stock market scandals, James B. Stewart has used his journalistic edge to cover a dazzling array of topics. In 2000, he released Blind Eye, which won an Edgar Award. The book follows the horrible killings committed by Michael Swango, a chilling figure who allegedly poisoned and killed up to 60 patients without being caught.
11. Finders Keepers: The True Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million, Mark Bowden (2002)
It was too good to be true. Joey Coyle, an unemployed man in his late 20s, was driving with a couple of friends when they happened upon a pair of sacks with a total of $1.2 million in cash. The weird, sad, slightly comic story of true crime follows Joey’s attempts to hide the cash and launder it, all while police are looking for the loot, which went missing from an armored car.
12. A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, Jeanine Cummins (2004)
Jeanine Cummins has a unique perspective on the crimes detailed in A Rip in Heaven: they happened to her family. On a Spring Break vacation with her family as a teen, Cummins’ 19-year-old brother, Tom, and their two female cousins were attacked on a bridge by a group of assailants. The girls were raped, and they were all pushed off the bridge. Only Tom survived. Cummins recreates the details of the case, including the fact that Tom was initially considered a suspect, with skill and surprising balance given her closeness to the events
13. The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule (1980)
Ann Rule career as a true crime writer exploded with her first book, The Stranger Beside Me, in which she describes the shocking true story of knowing and working with Ted Bundy before his arrest for a string of brutal murders. They worked together in the 1970s at a Seattle suicide hotline, and she slowly came to realize that the man she’d known was the one who committed these crimes. The book is a gripping account of her unusual proximity to one of the worst American killers in history.
14. Lethal Intent, Sue Russell (2002)
Female serial killers are far less common than male ones, which is why the story of killer Aileen Wuornos is so riveting. Sue Russell’s biography lays out Wuornos’ sordid history, from her early prostitution to her series of murders and finally execution via lethal injection. Wuornos’ autobiography, Monster, is also worth seeking out, and her life story was turned into a film in 2003.
15. Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders, Terry Sullivan and Peter T. Maiken (2000)
Terry Sullivan was the lawyer who prosecuted John Wayne Gacy, nicknamed the “Killer Clown” because of his practice of dressing as a clown for local parties. Gacy murdered many young men and stuffed their bodies into his crawlspace. Sullivan’s account of Gacy’s cold-blooded acts remains one of the best looks at the man’s disturbed mind.
16. The Lives and Times of Bonnie & Clyde, E.R. Milner (1996)
Long romanticized, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow robbed banks and stayed ahead of authorities from 1932-1934, becoming legends after their death. E.R. Milner’s finely detailed book, which took a decade of research and writing, is one of the best portraits available of the couple and their impact.
17. Dead Man Walking, Helen Prejean (1993)
Sister Helen Prejean’s moving story of working with death-row inmates became an acclaimed film in 1995. Her book offers a compelling argument against the death penalty, detailing her work as a spiritual advisor to men sentenced to die.
18. Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, Bryan Burrough (2004)
The inspiration for Michael Mann’s 2009 film Public Enemies, Bryan Burrough’s exhaustively researched tome offers a fascinating look at a pivotal era in criminal justice in America. Burrough discusses Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and more in his tale of one of the biggest crime sprees in the nation’s history, and he does it all with grace and skill.
19. Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox, Barbie Latza Nadeau (2010)
Meredith Kircher was 21 years old when she was murdered in Italy, and the case shocked the nation as well as her family and viewers here in the states. Fellow American student Amanda Knox was eventually convicted of the crime, but there are dozens of twists and turns along the way, not to mention more suspects. Nadeau’s new book sheds light on the killing like never before, including the controversial convictions.
20. The Killing Season: A Summer Inside an LAPD Homicide Division, Miles Corwin (1997)
Similar to David Simon’s Homicide, Miles Corwin’s The Killing Season examines crime in Los Angeles and the way that most murders tend to be ignored by society. In the summer of 1994, everyone else in the country was fascinated by O.J. Simpson, but Corwin rode along with homicide cops in south-central Los Angeles to chronicle the hundreds of murders they dealt with.
21. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale (2008)
Kate Summerscale’s nonfiction period drama tells the unusual tale of one of England’s first modern detectives and the case that nearly undid him. Scotland Yard’s Jonathan Whicher was tasked with discovering who killed a 3-year-old child in 1860, and his dogged investigation of the victim’s family turned up solid theories but no evidence. Whicher’s career suffers even as justice is pursued in this fascinating story.
22. And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, Steve Oney (2003)
Steve Oney’s And the Dead Shall Rise profiles a dark moment in American anti-Semitic activity. Mary Phagan, age 13, was murdered in 1913, and her boss, Frank, was arrested for the murder and eventually convicted. His Judaism brought plenty of hatred and discrimination, as Oney details, and when Frank’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, angry locals stormed the jail, made off with Frank, and hung him themselves. The shocking turn of events gave birth to the Anti-Defamation League.
23. Confessions of Son of Sam, David Abrahamsen (1985)
David Berkowitz, better known as the Son of Sam, killed multiple people in a spree that gripped New York City and the nation in the summer of 1977. David Abrahamsen’s book is culled from 50 hours of interviews with Berkowitz, as well as research and interviews with family and friends. It’s a truly indispensable book for anyone looking to learn more about the notorious serial killer.
24. Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill — The Story of Mary Bell, Gitta Sereny (1999)
Gitta Sereny’s true crime book focuses on an often neglected area of criminal justice: children who kill. The titular Mary Bell was 11 when she and a friend killed two little bots, and Sereny’s book examines Bell’s tortured youth to find out what might drive a young mind to the breaking point.
25. Blood and Money, Thomas Thompson (2001)
Using a novel-like approach to describe real events, Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money is a compelling tale of death, murder, and corruption in Texas. The riveting cast of characters, combined with Thompson’s skill at untangling the crimes’ many webs, make it one of the most engaging true-crime books out there.