I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a true crime devotee. In my defence, I was doing it before it was cool. Long before Serial or Making A Murderer, I was a teenager snuggling up with a copy of World’s Worst Serial Killers as bed-time reading. That said, I really appreciate that my secret shame has become Cool and Hip. I’m absolutely spoiled for choice now when I scan the true crime shelves at my favourite bookstore, or scroll the charts for podcasts! It seems only fitting that I put together a list of my favourites – the best true crime books (and never fear, there’s something here for everyone, beginner through to expert!).
Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John Berendt
Here’s a question you’ll hear frequently in true crime: was it self-defence, or murder? And that’s the very question at the centre of Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil. In the Old South, a shooting in Savannah’s grandest mansion takes twists and turns that you couldn’t possibly make up. (Here’s another one: the truth is stranger than fiction, you heard it here first!) This classic of true crime books has everything you could ask for: Southern belles, drag queens, reclusive ne’er do wells, and even a Voodoo priestess. Plus, it’s a stunning survey of Savannah and the beautiful contrasts of that unique part of the world.
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
I think part of the reason true crime gets a bad rap is that people assume it’s all schlocky, grisly serial killers and stuff. In fact, the best true crime books are fascinating and bizarre, written about the kind of crimes you wouldn’t even imagine. Case in point: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. In 1994, a group of Native Americans were arrested for poaching orchids from a state reserve. Apparently, there is a huge black market for these beautiful flowers, and Orlean’s investigation into the crime reveals more than you’d bargain for.
See also: The Library Book
Zealot by Jo Thornely
Why would anyone join a cult? That’s what Jo Thornely endeavours to find out in Zealot. From the outside, it seems literally unbelievable, the way that people are lured – hoodwinked, brainwashed, whatever you want to call it – into handing over their money, their lives, even their children to groups with malevolent intent. What are we missing? Thornely examines all the biggies – The Family, Jonestown, The Branch Davidians – in search of answers. Plus, if the stories hook you in, you can check out the podcast on which the book is based!
Trace by Rachael Brown
I can’t remember how exactly I first stumbled upon the Trace podcast, but in my mind it looms large as the best-of-the-best in true crime podcasting. Rachael Brown investigated a cold case so chilling that I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about it before. The chase for Maria James’ killer zigs and zags across the map (religion, divorce, disability, abuse) but leads only to a series of terrifying dead ends. I waxed so lyrical about this incredible show that my sister-in-law bought me the book Brown wrote about it, also called Trace, for Christmas. If podcasts aren’t “your thing”, this is the perfect alternative: one of the best true crime books about a would-be solvable crime out there.
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
Let’s be real: sometimes (not all of the time, but sometimes) the best true crime books are the ones that allow us to bask in the glorious schadenfreude of watching the rich and fabulous get what’s coming to them. I think that’s why Bad Blood hooked me. I can’t speak for the rest of you, of course, but a Silicon Valley start-up that duped millions of dollars out of the obscenely wealthy on the basis of a fake blood testing “development”? That’s a yes, please and thank you. This true crime book is every bit as gripping as a fictional crime read, only the more baffling because it really happened.
Murder In Mississippi by John Safran
I’m a John Safran fan-girl since the old days of Sunday Night Safran (Triple J just ain’t the same without it!). When he alluded to the fact that he was researching and writing a true crime book – one for which he listened to endless hours of white supremacist ranting, no less – I squealed with delight. Murder In Mississippi (called God’ll Cut You Down in the U.S., because apparently even though Mississippi sounds very exotic and mysterious here, it’s basically the equivalent of calling a book “Murder In NSW” over there) totally lived up to all of my already-inflated expectations. It’s somehow become even more relevant in the current age of inflamed race relations – Safran is truly a man ahead of his time. Read my full review of Murder In Mississippi here.
This House Of Grief by Helen Garner
It’s the endless debate of Helen Garner’s oeuvre: is she at her best writing thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction, essays, or true crime? I change my mind more often than I change my underpants. Either way, there’s no doubt that some of the best true crime books to come out of Australia have come from her desk and pen, and This House Of Grief is the best – by which I mean the most haunting, gut-churning, and heart-wrenching – of all. Few writers could tackle the trials of a man who drove his children into a dam, killing them, with such insight, nuance, and discernment.
See also: Joe Cinque’s Consolation
Reasonable Doubt by Xanthé Mallett
Most of the best true crime books out there seek the same thing: justice. Usually, that means seeing someone who did a terrible thing punished accordingly. But what about the convictions gone wrong, the miscarriages of justice that lead to innocent people being imprisoned? Dr Xanthé Mallet, internationally-renowned forensic scientist and criminologist, sets out to restore the balance and shine a spotlight on this neglected issue in Reasonable Doubt. Mallett uses a series of case studies to explore the systemic failures of our criminal justice system. By examining how and why miscarriages of justice occur, she reveals opportunities for us to avoid them, and highlights the importance of making adequate restitution where they do occur. Read my full review of Reasonable Doubt here.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Reading In Cold Blood is like time-travelling back to where it all began, the “first true crime novel”. In 1959, the Clutter family was murdered in their Kansas farm home, and Capote read a short article about it in The New Yorker. He immediately packed his bags and headed out there to investigate. After six years, and eight thousand pages of notes, he produced In Cold Blood, the book that still defines the genre to this day. (And no, I don’t care that he took some liberties with the truth: it is such a gripping and compelling read that I’ll forgive any and all creative license.) Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.
The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper
Sometimes, I find myself wondering if a true crime book is “too soon”. It’s been over a decade since the Black Saturday bushfires here in Australia, but reading The Arsonist proved that the wounds are still raw. Hooper unravels the actions of Brendan Sokaluk that day, the man convicted of lighting at least two of the most dangerous fires. Don’t come to it expecting “answers”. It’s not a thrilling police procedural where the bad guy is hunted down by the good guys and gets what’s coming to him. It’s an intimate portrait of a man who was found guilty of a horrendous crime, with many questions left lingering as to how, why, and even whether. Read my full review of The Arsonist here.