From bookshelf classics to new breakout tales of greed, murder, sex and whodunnits, meet true crime’s greatest books.
True crime is booming. Podcasts such as Serial, Criminal and My Favourite Murder have turned the investigation of cold cases and infamous crimes into an art form while TV series such as Chernobyl and Netflix’s Mindhunter and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes are feeding our fascination with dark moments in history.
So it’s only natural that the book genre that inspired it is also having a moment. At 2019’s London Book Fair, the genre was being snapped up by publishers across the board with women leading the reading pack (70% of Amazon true crime reviews are written by women).
Inspired by some of the incredible books that have come out over the past few years and also classics of the genre, these are the true crime titles you need to read.
My Friend Anna by Rachel DeLoache Williams
Thanks to a New York magazine article, the world became fascinated by Anna Delvey (real name Anna Sorokin) in 2018. Claiming to be a German heiress looking to set up a private members club in New York, Anna was, in fact, a master scammer who managed to squeeze around $220,000 out of banks, businesses and friends. Sadly, one of them was Rachel DeLoache Williams, a photo editor at Vanity Fair, whose book about their friendship, Anna’s scam and the subsequent fallout is an addictive and jaw-dropping read (plus you can get a little taster here).
Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich
When the TV series of Chernobyl first started airing in the UK, sales of this Nobel Prizewinner jumped an incredible 1088%. Uniting 500 interviews undertaken over 20 years, Alexievich arrived at Chernobyl immediately after the explosion at the nuclear power plant near the Belarusian border, on 26 April 1986. Her sister – a doctor – fell ill and died a few months later. In this moving and incredibly comprehensive exploration of the disaster, she tells the human stories of firefighters, scientists, doctors and plantworkers who were all affected by the calamity.
(£9.99, Penguin Classics)
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara
From 1976 onwards, a psychopath was at large in California committing sexual assaults, rape and murder. It led to a State-wide panic with 8,000 suspects investigated but no one was ever found. Then in 2007, true-crime journalist and blogger Michelle McNamara discovered the case and began to forensically examine documents, testimonies and evidence coining the name ‘The Golden State Killer’.
McNamara became increasingly obsessed with the case laying the foundations of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark. Sadly, in 2016 aged 46 she died suddenly leaving the book to be finished overseen by her husband, the actor Patton Oswalt. Then in 2018, a man was finally arrested… McNamara had been on to something…
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
All too often violent crimes are about the perpetrator while the victims remain unnamed and unknown destined to be a footnote in someone else’s story. In this timely and brilliant book, historian Rubenhold gives a voice to Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly.
She reveals that these were women who were let down by society, blighted by poverty and, most tellingly of all, probably killed while they slept – she undoes the myth of Jack the Ripper as a Victorian whodunnit and reframes it as the tragedy it is.
The Professor & The Parson by Adam Sisman
Hugh Trevor-Roper was a celebrated historian who met a postgrad student in 1958 calling himself ‘Robert Peters’. Claiming that he was being persecuted by the Bishop of Oxford (as you do), Trevor-Roper began to take an interest in the man only to discover a fraud, bigamist and, ultimately, a defrocked Anglican clergyman. His biographer Sisman picks up the trail using Trevor-Roper’s dossier in a bonkers story that includes eight marriages, three prison sentences and an awful appearance on Mastermind.
Mindhunter: Inside the FBI Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas
This is the book that inspired Netflix’s atmospheric show as John Douglas was the man who created the FBI’s Criminal Profiling Program. Mocked by his colleagues for interviewing some of America’s worst serial killers including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and Edmund Kemper, Douglas’ idea was simple: learn from the source.
By talking to these killers, Douglas began to understand and build common profiles of serial killers (abusive childhoods, cruelty to animals) and became instrumental in tracking down some of the worst offenders. Hard-to-read but fascinating, this is a book that lifts the lid on a darker side of humanity.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The book that launched a thousand true-crime titles was inspired by the brutal and devastating murder of the Clutter family in 50s Kansas. Fascinated by the case, celebrated writer Capote and his childhood friend, Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird travelled to the town of Holcomb where the crime had taken place. What followed was a compelling and moving portrait of a small town rocked by violence and also an insightful psychological examination of the two men who were arrested and executed for the crime. Unmissable.
The Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
The inspiration for Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning film, Stallworth’s real-life story is proof that fact is always weirder than fiction. In 1978, Stallworth became Colorado Springs’ first black detective. While investigating the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, he found himself chatting over the phone to one of its recruiters before being asked to join.
In a moment of inspiration (or madness), he talks his white partner to attend the meetings in person while Stallworth himself continues to chat on the phone uncovering and sabotaging the racist group’s activities for months afterwards. It’s an incredible story told with verve and wit.
Blood On The Altar by Tobias Jones
An exploration of an Italian serial killer goes way beyond the usual procedural as Jones presents a small town in Italy that’s blighted by lies, cover-ups (both state and church) and hidden, unspoken violence. In 1993, a 16-year-old girl named Eliza Claps goes missing and her family are convinced that a local boy with a compulsion to cut women’s hair is somehow linked. Scuppered at every turn, it’s not until 2010 that they finally get the justice they’re seeking.
The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Warning: this is a hard book to read and could be triggering. However, it is one of beauty and honesty exploring how childhood abuse can shape people in such different ways.
Part-memoir, part-true crime, Marzano-Lesnevich’s story begins when she is working as an intern in a law office. Assigned to help a child killer avoid the death penalty, she is overcome with a visceral and violent response and one that leads to an understanding of her own childhood trauma.
Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill
The shocking murder of pregnant actress Sharon Tate along with four other people in 1969 by members of the Manson Family has become one of Hollywood’s most notorious crimes. It ushered in the end of the 60s’ Summer of Love and brought with it terrifying tales of psychosis, drugs and Satanism.
In this new book, Chaos, journalist Tom O’Neill asks the question whether the killings weren’t some random act but carefully calculated by the CIA and FBI in a strike against the rise of hippie counterculture with nods to the US government’s mind-control programme, MKULTRA. Read this and prepare to become a conspiracy nut.
(£20, William Heinemann)
Furious Hours by Casey Cep
Subtitled ‘Murder, Fraud and The Last Trail of Harper Lee’, this is an incredible story of an Alabama Reverend who killed five members of his family for the insurance only to be acquitted and shot at the funeral of his last victim in front of 300 people.
The man accused of his killing was defended by a white lawyer, Tom Radney – the same lawyer who’d got The Reverend off previously. Then into this larger-than-life case steps To Kill A Mockingbird writer, Harper Lee, who 12 years before had helped her friend Truman Capote investigate In Cold Blood (see above). Weaving together a tale of the Deep South, rural politics and artistic vision, Cep has created a book that’s totally astounding and deeply moving.
Furious Hours by Casey Cep (£20, Cornerstone)
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
In 1860, a whodunnit of violent murder, scheming servants and a grieving middle-class family horrified Britain and inspired writers including Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. And, at the heart of it all, was a detective named Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard who arrived on the crime scene a mere fortnight after it took place.
Painstakingly exploring the Victorian household, social strata and investigation of Whicher, Kate Summerscale reinvigorated the true crime genre while also leaving the reader grieving the sad death of an innocent boy over a century after it happened.
Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer by Stephen G Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth
The book behind the Netflix series is based on 150 hours of interviews with the serial killer. Responsible for the deaths of 30 women before he was executed in 1989, these conversations are deeply disturbing but an insight into Bundy’s ability to manipulate and reframe his own experiences. If you want to read more Bundy, The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, who knew him personally before realising he was a killer is a fascinating story.
Dark Places by James Ellroy
The writer James Ellroy is responsible for some of America’s greatest crime books including LA Confidential and White Jazz. Brutal and violent, part of his writing stems from the murder of his mother in 1958. Haunted by her loss, Ellroy descended into drink and petty crime before becoming a writer but 38 years later found it within himself to investigate her murder along with a veteran detective. This is a moving book that explores the ripple effect of such violence.
You All Grow Up and Leave Me by Piper Weiss
In 90s Manhattan, Gary Wilensky was a tennis coach to privileged prep school students on the Upper East Side. He was also a child predator with a torture chamber upstate who was planning to kidnap one of his charges. In this fascinating memoir, one student Piper Weiss explores why she was desperate for his approval and, also, why she wasn’t on preyed upon. Exploring teenage sensibilities and how children are groomed, it’s an important book that breaks down the silence about our worst fears.
Gone Shopping by Lorraine Gamman
For a true-life tale of a woman it’s hard to dislike then this is your book. In the 50s and 60s, Shirley Pitts was known around London as the “queen of shoplifters”. Born into poverty, she spent her formative years being taught how to steal by an all-female group called “the forty thieves”. By her early 20s, she was targeting the West End shops of Harrods, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols with tin foil-lined shopping bags to hide her loot. When she was buried (in Zandra Rhodes), her funeral was a who’s who of British criminals with flowers on the coffin spelling out the immortal words “Gone shopping”.
Unbelievable by T Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong
Previously published as A False Report but renamed to coincide with Netflix’s new series adaptation, this book should be read by anyone who’s questioned a victim. It begins with the story of an 18-year-old girl called Marie from Seattle who reported to police that she’d been raped by a masked intruder. Within days, her story had become confused with the police rounding on her and charging her with false reporting. Then, two years later, a detective started investigating a link between two other rapes… Disturbing and meticulously researched, this is a vital book for the #metoo era.
Homicide by David Simon
Before creating The Wire, David Simon was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper. In this 1991 true crime epic, he spent a year with Baltimore’s homicide unit writing up bizarre, violent and shocking crimes including ‘The Black Widow’ who took out insurance on all of her five husbands before having them murdered.
There’s also the case of the patrolman who was shot in the head at point blank range only to survive (albeit without his senses of smell or taste). However, it’s the story of Latonya Kim Wallace who’ll haunt you; a young girl who was assaulted and killed, the case remains unsolved.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Once you discover the story of Elizabeth Holmes it’s hard to think about anything else… In 2014, the young and charismatic Stanford dropout announced she was going to revolutionise the medical industry with new tech that would make blood tests quicker and easier.
Inspired by her vision, investors plowed in cash with a $9 billion round of funding. The only catch? It didn’t exist… In this captivating book, Carreyrou reveals the bullying, deceptions (using regular blood tests to fool investors), bare-faced lying and glamour that surround one of the biggest frauds to ever hit Silicon Valley. Read it and gasp.
Gomorrah: Italy's Other Mafia by Roberto Saviano
It’s been 12 years since the publication of Gomorrah. It’s since been turned into a great film, an addictive TV series and it remains the definitive work on Italy’s criminal underbelly – and, as a consequence – Saviano remains under 24-hour police protection. Detailing the power of ‘The System’, Saviano presents how crime runs from the streets to the powers-that-be and into international waters as drugs, trafficking and violence seeps into everything from construction to high fashion.
On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming
If you’re fascinated by mysteries and historical tales, then this is an absolute find. Inspired by the strange short-lived kidnapping of her mother aged three from Chapel Sands beach (an experience she couldn’t even remember and only discovered 50 years later), Cumming unravels a tale of smalltown politics, envy and regret in 20s England. It’s also an inspired piece of detective work.
Images: Supplied by publishers