Most crime reads (fiction or non-fiction) fall somewhere on the spectrum of sad to scary. When the crime in question is a cold case, left open with no resolution and no justice, the dial is turned up to eleven. There’s something particularly eerie about a story with no conclusion. Here are thirteen books about cold cases.
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Fiction | It’s easy to forget that The Husband’s Secret is about a cold case – the moral dilemma at its heart (should you read a letter your husband asked you only to open after his death?) is very distracting. But that’s what it is: a book about the ripple effect of the suspicious death of a seventeen-year-old girl. Thirty years later, the girl’s mother is still wondering what happened, still half-blaming the P.E. teacher at the school where she works (based on nothing more substantial than a vibe), and still living half of her own life in the past. The truth of what happened to Rachel’s daughter all those years ago is going to come out, for the reader at least. Read my full review of The Husband’s Secret here.
Trace by Rachael Brown
Non-fiction | I’m not exaggerating when I think about what happened to Maria James at least once a week. Rachael Brown brought the case much-needed publicity – first with her incredible podcast series, and now her book, Trace. It’s one of the most distressing books about cold cases you’ll read, if for no other reason than it involves the unsolved murder of a bookseller. But in investigating the murder of Maria James, Brown turned over a lot of other stones, where crimes have festered in silence: ritualistic cults, abuses of power in the Church, and police incompetence of the most shocking order. Read my full review of Trace here.
The Lake House by Kate Morton
Fiction | The Lake House is a book about a cold case that plays out over three different timelines. In 2003, a police detective on leave can’t help but dig around to see if she can figure out a decades-old cold case that has haunted the village she visits. Seventy years prior, at a Midsummer Eve party, an infant was taken from his family home, and no trace of him was ever seen again. His older sister blamed herself, and spent decades trying to put it behind her – needless to say, she doesn’t appreciate a cop coming around and sticking her nose in. In the end, though, that might be the best thing that could have happened. Read my full review of The Lake House here.
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
Non-fiction | Wars and conflicts are marked by cold cases: disappearances and deaths that will likely never be explained, “collateral damage” for which no one is ever held responsible. Patrick Radden Keefe was undaunted, though, by the difficulty of investigating one such case, the disappearance of a widowed mother of ten in 1972. She was taken from her Belfast home, and never seen again. It was one of many such vanishing acts that occurred during the height of the Troubles, but through Keefe’s close attention, in Say Nothing it becomes a lens through which we can understand the scale of the horror of this sectarian conflict, and the intergenerational trauma that is still felt to this day. Read my full review of Say Nothing here.
The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard
Fiction | Of all the books about cold cases, The Nothing Man has the most delightful meta-twist. The title is the moniker given to the man who assaulted and murdered a series of people in the early 2000s, in their Cork homes. Years later, his only surviving victim has written a memoir, an account of what happened to her family and her search for the Nothing Man. The reader knows, though, who the culprit is – it’s Jim, a supermarket security guard, and he’s reading the book his escaped victim wrote. He quickly realises how close she is to stumbling onto the truth of his identity, and he’s going to have to find a way to thwart her before his facade is broken down. Read my full review of The Nothing Man here.
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
Non-fiction | The Whitechapel murders have become the most famous cold case in history; you probably know them by the name the media gave the unidentified assailant, Jack The Ripper. But do you know the names of his victims? That’s why The Five is essential reading, one of the most important contemporary books about cold cases. Hallie Rubenhold paints a complete portrait of the lives of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane. They were more than “just prostitutes”, or homeless alcoholics. By correcting the historical record about their lives, Rubenhold has made them into more than their grisly ends. Read my full review of The Five here.
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara
Non-fiction | I debated long and hard with myself about whether I’ll Be Gone In The Dark should be included in a list of books about cold cases, because the case is technically no longer cold. In the end, I decided it belonged, if for no other reason than the case remained unsolved at the time of publication – and author Michelle McNamara’s passing. She never got to see the end of her story, which is unspeakably sad, but it makes our celebration of it even more important. McNamara was almost single-handedly responsible for keeping the case of the Golden State Killer fresh in everyone’s minds, and leading the charge on using familial DNA to bring closure for his victims and their families. Read my full review of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark here.
Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain
Fiction | The metaphor in Big Lies In A Small Town isn’t subtle, but it’s still beautifully done. Morgan Christopher was imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit, but secures early release on the condition that she restores a decades-old mural in a sleepy Southern town. In uncovering the artistry behind the layers of dirt and grime, she also uncovers a mystery. What happened to Anna Dale? The woman who painted the post office mural disappeared in the 1940s, with no explanation, and the only clues to her whereabouts might be hidden in the artwork she left behind. Read my full review of Big Lies In A Small Town here.
We Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper
Non-fiction | Many of the best books about cold cases come from intrepid bring minds, stumbling across a mystery in their vicinity and not being able to let it go. Becky Cooper was studying at Harvard when she heard the garbled story of a student who was stabbed to death in the late ’60s. Every educational institution has this type of urban legend, but something about the murder of Jane Britton gripped Cooper and wouldn’t let her go. She spent years investigating, finding truths that seemed stranger than fiction. We Keep The Dead Close is an incredibly detailed and moving work of true crime that unveils the ugly truth behind the “dark academia” aesthetic. Read my full review of We Keep The Dead Close here.
Lowbridge by Lucy Campbell
Fiction | One of the most recent books about cold cases I’ve read is Lowbridge, released earlier this year. Tess Dawes was 17-years-old when she vanished outside the local shopping center in 1987. She’s presumed dead, but no one knows for sure what happened to her – it’s a mystery that has haunted the (fictional) town of Lowbridge for decades. When Katherine moves there in 2018, she’s grieving her own loss and desperate to find something that will hold her together. Through the local historical society, she finds Tess’s story, and starts asking questions about how a girl can vanish without anyone seeing anything, in a town where everybody knows everyone. Read my full review of Lowbridge here.
Missing, Presumed Dead by Mark Tedeschi
Non-fiction | Dorothy Davis and Kerry Whelan came from opposite sides of Sydney. They were both (very) comfortably middle class, but other than that they had little in common. They ran in different circles, they had different hobbies, they never met. So, how did they both vanish without a trace, never to be seen again? Missing, Presumed Dead unspools these dual mysteries. Mark Tedeschi was the Crown Prosecutor in both cases, so he’s able to provide a lot of insight into the machinations of the criminal justice system when it comes to unsolved cases, making this one of the most informative books about cold cases in the non-fiction section. Read my full review of Missing, Presumed Dead here.
Remember Me by Charity Norman
Fiction | Are some secrets best left buried? That’s the question at the heart of Remember Me, a book that sets a daughter’s protective love for her aging father against the imperative for answers and justice. Books about cold cases are particularly compelling when they’re set in small towns, and this one is no exception. Through the mists of her father’s failing memory, Emily gets glimpses of the past, and what might have happened to Leah Patara, the girl who disappeared from their small town without a trace. But does she really want to know? It’s a family drama wrapped around a crime mystery, perfectly paced and playing out against the stunning backdrop of rural New Zealand. Read my full review of Remember Me here.
Shark Arm by Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher
Non-fiction | You’d be surprised how hard it can be to find books about cold cases that are particularly bizarre or macabre. They seem like low-hanging fruit, but being able to put the pieces together with minimal or maddening evidence isn’t easy, especially for a book-length investigation. Phillip Roope and Kevin Meagher deserve all of our kudos for managing to do it with Shark Arm, a book about one of the strangest cold cases in Australian history. The hint is in the title: a 4.4 meter shark vomited up a human arm at a Sydney aquarium, and led police down a rabbit hole of smuggling, insurance fraud, and – not one, but two – grisly murders. Read my full review of Shark Arm here.