Every genre has a few defining books, pillars of the canon that changed the game or played it so perfectly that they achieved icon status. With all of the recent scrutiny of the true crime genre, and new directions in how we report and engage with true crime across all formats, I got to thinking about all the Big(TM) true crime books over the last 50 years or so. It seems like every Murderino has read these – and if they haven’t yet, they really should. Here are ten classic true crime books to tick off your to-read list.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Truman Capote definitely believed he was changing the game with In Cold Blood. It was an instant classic upon publication in 1965, and has remained popular ever since. Capote was the first to popularise a literary style of true crime, where he used the techniques of fiction to tell the story of the Clutter murders in Kansas. Ethically, it strays to the dark end of the gray area, with Capote getting inappropriately close to the murderers (which undoubtedly coloured his coverage), exploiting witnesses, and barely acknowledging his friend Harper Lee’s extensive work in research and manuscript development – but it’s a cracking good read, all the same. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
The Stranger Beside Me is one of the most captivating classic true crime books, largely due to Ann Rule’s relationship with the subject, notorious serial murderer Ted Bundy. Rule knew Bundy when they worked together at a suicide hotline (of all things), and when she followed the cases of local girls murdered brutally in their homes, she had little idea that it was her good friend Ted who wielded the weapon. The resulting book is unique in that it is both biographical and autobiographical; Rule is able to testify as to what Bundy was like in ‘real life’, and give us access to the psychological effects of learning that your friend is a killer. That Rule is a talented writer and can Bring It on the page makes it all the better. Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.
Columbine by Dave Cullen
It’s hard to find words to describe the tragedy of the Columbine High School massacre. I’m amazed that Dave Cullen was able to delve so deeply into the unspeakable in his definitive true crime book about the shooting, called simply Columbine. In alternating chapters, he describes Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s evolution from disgruntled teens to active shooters, and the impact of the school shooting on the community over the following decade. Cullen won dozens of awards for his work, especially in dismantling the mythology and misconceptions that had grown around the massacre in the years since. Be warned, though: even though this one is a classic of the true crime genre, and a worthy read, it is very graphic and explicit in its depictions.
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
If copies sold was the only gauge by which we judged classic true crime books, Helter Skelter would top the list. It is the best-selling true crime book of all time. Vincent Bugliosi had unique access to the case of the Manson Murders, being the prosecutor in the 1970 trial of Charles Manson. He gives a first-hand account of the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of Charles Manson and other members of the Manson Family. Unfortunately, Bugliosi devotes comparatively little time to the lives of the victims or the wider impact of the Manson Family’s crimes, meaning the book falls short of many of the ethical standards we set for true crime today. Still, it is one of the classics of the genre, and an essential read all the same.
Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John Berendt
In the footsteps of In Cold Blood followed Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, a classic true crime book about the murder of Danny Hansford by his boss in Savannah, Georgia. Thirty-odd years after Capote topped the best-seller lists, John Berendt revisited the idea of a true crime novel set in the Deep South, with comparable success. Berendt employs the tropes of the Southern Gothic, and casts his net wide for details about the Savannah setting and its eccentric cast of “characters”. It makes for an immersive, if at times overwhelming, read. It’s evocative and detailed, though beware: Berendt took some liberties with the timeline to make the real-life events fit his ‘plot’ structure, so it’s best not to take the story as gospel.
Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss
Fatal Vision became one of the classic true crime books for strange reasons (more on those in a minute below). On its face, it’s a book about Captain Jeffrey R. MacDonald, who was convicted of the 1970 murders of his wife and child. MacDonald maintained his innocence throughout the investigation and trial, claiming that his home had been invaded and his family attacked by ‘hippies’ high on acid. He hired Joe McGinniss to write his story, giving him unparalleled access to privileged conversations and court proceedings, in the believe that McGinniss would write a book proclaiming his innocence. However, McGinniss was quite convinced of MacDonald’s guilt, and published this book saying as much. MacDonald went on to sue McGinniss, and the author was widely criticised for behaving unethically.
The Journalist And The Murderer by Janet Malcolm
Remember how I said Fatal Vision became a classic under unusual circumstances? Well, here they are. Janet Malcolm was so intrigued-slash-infuriated by how McGinniss deceived and betrayed his subject in writing that book that she wrote a whole other book about how fucked up it was – The Journalist And The Murderer. She re-interviewed all of the major players in the case (including lawyers, members of the jury, and witnesses) to reconstruct not only the crime, but the ways in which it was misrepresented in McGinniss’s book. Her book became not only one of the classic true crime books, but also one of the classic books on journalism; it’s still used in academic classrooms to teach journalistic ethics today.
Zodiac by Robert Graysmith
No true crime case haunts the minds and search histories of Murderinos more than that of the Zodiac Killer, a series of unsolved murders in the San Francisco area in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Robert Graysmith dissects what we know, and what we think we could know, about the case in Zodiac, his 1986 true crime book. He covers the various investigations across all levels of law enforcement – the LAPD, the FBI, the CIA – that failed to unmask the killer, despite thousands of man hours and tips and evidence logged. He incorporates his own theories, even pointing to two (pseudonymous) suspects that he believes may be responsible. We may never know the truth of the culprit, but at least we got one of the most captivating classic true crime books out of it.
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
John Grisham is unbelievably prolific, and yet his back-catalogue contains only one true crime book: The Innocent Man. And boy, it’s a corker! Unlike many other classic true crime books, Grisham finds the golden goose, a wrongful conviction that he can expose (thus, the title). Ron Keith Williamson was a minor league baseball player wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter. He was sentenced to death, and spent eleven years on Death Row until he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1999. Grisham used this, and other cases of wrongful conviction, to expose the capacity of police departments and courts to prosecute on flimsy evidence, and the psychological ramifications for the accused. Williamson’s story is a tragic one, and all the more important to examine, given the recent trend towards trial by media.
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1979 true crime book, The Executioner’s Song. Mailer used the story of the execution of Gary Gilmore to examine the wider ramifications of the death penalty, reinstated in the United States in 1976. Gilmore actually advocated for the death penalty, insisting that his sentence be carried out “as soon as possible”, with all rehabilitative efforts and judicial recourse exhausted. Mailer’s progressive approach to his subject – extensive and meticulous, interrogating the impact of Gilmore’s crimes and execution on all sides, including that of his victims – was widely lauded and ahead of its time. This is one of the classic true crime books from a most unlikely source.