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Home » Culture and Criticism

Your True-Crime Hall of Fame

Submitted by on July 19, 2012 – 4:52 PM95 Comments

A question for you about true-crime books, even if you don't think of yourself as reading much true crime: Which books would you put in a true-crime canon? If someone comes to you and asks for three classics/must-reads in the genre, which three would you recommend?

Let me back up a bit here. For years now, I've wanted to do a blog that serves as a sort of review clearinghouse for true-crime pop culture — books, TV shows, documentaries, even Lifetime movies — with all sorts of different features. One of those features is a true-crime pantheon or essential bookshelf, and I'd probably nominate In Cold BloodFatal Vision, and The Executioner's Song. Or Stranger Beside Me. Or Helter Skelter. Or Whitewash. Or do we consider the JFK genre, which is not only gigantic but frequently and very deeply bonkazoo, its own thing…or does it need its own shelf.

All stuff I'm mulling over while I think about getting a site like that off the ground, what to call it ("Blood Read" is not doing it for me), how to find the "Mark Harmon as Ted Bundy" miniseries on DVD, and so on, but in the meantime! Three (3) true-crime classics: go.

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  • Joseph Wambaugh's THE ONION FIELD and LINES AND SHADOWS. As great as any of the other titles you cite, but often forgotten for some reason.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I am watching the film version of The Onion Field right now GOOCHER!

    And one of the features I get the most psyched about is the "which became the awesomest/crappiest film" feature. There's a relatively recent Ann Rule that isn't even that good to start with, but once they turned Lifetime and Rob Lowe loose on the shit, OMG. Brilliant. (I mean, terrible. But brilliant.)

  • Lea says:

    I remember Joe McGiniss's Blind Faith being pretty good, and it was also made into a miniseries, leading to one of the weirdest match-making stories ever: Joanna Kerns played the murdered mother, and set up her Growing Pains daughter, Tracey Gold, with the real-life son of the murdered mother, and now they're married.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Lea, was that the same one that had Paltrow and…wait, never mind. That was the adaptation of McGinniss's Cruel Doubt — Gwynnie and Blythe Danner as daughter/mom.

    And let's not forget who played Jeff MacDonald in the miniseries Fatal Vision: Gary Cole. And if memory serves, he was PERFECT.

  • Lea says:

    Yeah, I was obsessed with Fatal Vision as a kid, and Gary Cole will always be Jeffrey McDonald to me.

  • Paco says:

    David Simon's "Homicide" (I swear the air was sucked out of my room during the final Fish Man interrogation) and Mikal Gilmore's "Shot in the Heart". I'll take that over "Executioner's Song" any day.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    "Homicide" and "The Corner" are both great reads.

    Gustave will have my ass if I don't mention Son of a Grifter (the Kimeses).

  • rab01 says:

    Does true crime include The Brinks Job and documentaries like The Thin Blue Line? Or do you mean essentially murders?

    To be honest, I take most of my true crime in movie form so I'm no help on the hall of fame.

  • Along with some of the ones already mentioned (like "In Cold Blood", "The Executioner's Song", "Shot in the Heart", "Homicide" and "The Corner"), I'd also put up there "Prince of the City" and "Little Man", about Meyer Lansky, the best and least self-serving book about gangsters I've ever read. And then maybe Ellroy's "My Dark Places".

    However, I also would want to know; are we only defining "true crime" in the sense of "murder and police" books? Because I'd argue, in their own way, books like "All the President's Men", "Schindler's List", "The Rape of Nanking", "The Biafra Story", and "The Falcon and the Snowman" are true crime stories.

  • Greg Brown says:

    Columbine by Dave Cullen is a recent true-crime great that both sweeps aside previous incorrect reports and explains how they got it so wrong.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @rab01 and @Sean: No, not just murder/police stuff. Train robberies, identity thefts, government cover-ups, reptile-smuggling (yes, that's a thing), the Mafia, you name it. The idea is that true crime as a genre is looked down on, and I'd like to create a forum for expecting better of it, since it has delivered some amazing cultural highs.

    @Greg, I listened to Columbine on my cross-country trip last year as an audiobook. I didn't want to stop to pee sometimes; gripping stuff. Bleak, though. Take breaks from it.

    While I'm up, if anyone has recommendations for books on forgeries/art crime, let's hear 'em. Already read the one about Art Williams.

  • Ann Rule's THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, her (occasionally first-person) account of Ted Bundy's killing spree.

  • Julie says:

    "Evidence of Love" by John Bloom. It is an outstanding true crime book that was so riveting I couldn't sleep until I had read the whole thing. Compared to the other recommended books, hardly anyone has read this one, and yet it is SO GOOD!

  • Beth says:

    Would John Douglas's books count as true crime? They're more about the methods of profiling, but they do recount numerous anecdotes about actual incidents.

    The feminist in me says let's hear it for the ladies: "Small Sacrifices" (Diane Downs), "From Cradle to Grave" (Marybeth Tinning) and "The Death Shift" (Genene Jones.)

  • Kathy Kirchner says:

    "Blood and Money" by Thomas Thompson. It's one of my all-time favorite books of any genre.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Beth, I'd count those, especially The Cases That Haunt Us, which I am sad to admit I've read dozens of times.

    @Kathy, check it! http://tomatonation.com/culture-and-criticism/author-photos-that-bring-me-joy-thomas-thompson/ (Own the book, haven't read it yet.)

  • Soph says:

    It's more playful (and maybe more of a con story?), but "Catch Me If You Can" is a great read. Frank Abagnale is a family friend, and the man is absolutely riveting in person!

  • MaryAnne says:

    Another vote here for Blind Faith … that one just grabbed me for some reason, I was obsessed.

    And Sars, when you mentioned Cruel Doubt, I thought that was the one where Gwynnie's husband was none other than Chandler Bing, but then I looked it up and the one I was thinking of was called Deadly Relations, with Shelly Fabares as the mom, and Robert Urich from Blind Faith returning as the dad/killer. Although in this one he kills his daughter's husbands instead of hiring a hit on his own wife.

  • Lis says:

    I know I have more, my dad's a pretty prolific criminology professor so it's kind of all I read growing up. I'll pick his brain and get back to you if he has some that he considers "important" that haven't been mentioned here.

    So for now, "political/make me mad/want to scream and force everyone to read them" books: Dead Man Walking and Devil's Knot (I haven't read Damion's books but they are on my pile, specifically Life After Death)…

    For classics I always go with Helter Skelter and Reversal of Fortune. (Helter Skelter was my first intro into True Crime, because my parents didn't think that a 10 year old reading about creepy crawling was at all strange.)

    For more light often funny entertainment based true crime Sex on the Moon is fun… I don't know if you would count it but Bringing Down the House (the one they based that awful movie 21 on) about card counting is sort of "true crime lite" if you will…

  • Allie says:

    I don't know if it's correct to call it a classic but Cannibal Killers by Moira Martingale immediately sprang to mind. Gah – the creeps that book gave me! And if the Holocaust is included then The Theory and Practice of Hell by Eugen Kogon must be in there.

  • Sandman says:

    Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family about Henry Hill was the basis for Goodfellas, wasn't it? Or maybe the Leopold and Loeb case, which became something of a micro-genre in itself, what with the plays, and movies, and novels. Midnight In The Garden of Good And Evil is about more than the crime, so I don't know if it's a proper choice.

    I want to suggest Tomato Nation Presents The Better Read Dead, though it's probably a trifle on the nose.

  • Mel says:

    Death Sentence: The Inside Story of the John List Murders Joe Sharkey
    The Chicago Outfit by John Binder

    Chop Shop by Kathy Braidhill (The Lamb Funeral Home Scandal)

    And I heartily second the nomination of Joyce Egginton's "From Cradle to Grave" about Marybeth Tinning.

  • cmcl says:

    Small Sacrifices, and the Farrah vehicle that it spawned.

  • Susan says:

    Julie, high fives! Evidence of Love was the first thing I thought of. In case anyone's hunting for it, it was actually cowritten by Bloom and Jim Atkinson. (Also, there was a TV movie adaptation, and it's just terrible.)

  • Daisy says:

    I think In Cold Blood, Fatal Vision, and The Stranger Beside Me would be my top three. Columbine was top-notch and could get an honorary mention but it's too soon to call it a classic.

  • Quag says:

    Two books I re-read till they fell apart. Robert Cullen's "Citizen X", and Michael Chrichton's "The Great Train Robbery". Sorry I can't come up with a third.

  • Amy says:

    I read true crime almost exclusively for many years. Off the top of my head, here are some thoughts. "Perfect Victim: The True Story of the Girl in the Box" was the first true crime book I read, and it got me hooked. I think, all these years later, it still holds its own. As I blazed through lots of poorly written, thin books with big type and sensationalist covers, I got fed up and more picky. From here on, I'd be more inclined to recommend authors. Vincent Bugliosi and Jack Olson come to mind. Other random books that left a deep impression are:

    1. From Cradle to Grave, Joyce Egginton
    2. Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer
    3. A Death in White Bear Lake, Barry Siegel

  • Kristin says:

    I share your top three, Sars, and also think Small Sacrifices is a good choice. I liked Vincent Bugliosi's And The Sea Will Tell, and Edna Buchanan's The Corpse Had A Familiar Face, too.

  • Amy says:

    The Stranger Beside Me–this was one of the few true crime novels I've read that affected me like a horror novel; I was seriously looking over my shoulder after this one.

    Our Guys, by Bernard Lefkowitz. Well-written, thorough, really sad.

    The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century, by Harold Schechter–fascinating. I really like true crime novels that also contain a healthy dose of history. Schechter also has a whole list of serial killer books with titles like Deviant and Psycho USA–I haven't read any of those. I'd be curious to know if anyone else has and what you thought!

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    God, I'm so bad at this! My first thought was a book we sold at Borders lo so many years ago, and of COURSE I can't remember the title but it was first hand police stories of the dumbest criminals they'd ever dealt with. It was hilarious stuff.

    In fact, I think it was something along the lines of "These Aren't My Pants" because every cop has a story of having to frisk somebody and coming up with, say, some pills in their pants pocket. The Mensa candidate promptly says "These aren't my pants, they're my cousin's."

    "Your cousin lets you wear his pants?"

    "…yeah, man."

    It continues on with the frisk and finding a gun and the guy saying that it's his cousin's jacket too and when asked if he routinely puts on other people's clothes stuffed with drugs and guns and doesn't notice says "It was dark!"

    Not the usual true crime, but a lighthearted reminder that the majority of criminals are dumb as a box of rocks might come in handy to lift some of the bleakness.

  • Morgan says:

    Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury is a good one about art forgery.

  • Morgan says:

    Oops – Provenance was co-authored by Aly Sujo

  • Wehaf says:

    I just read "In Cold Blood" for the first time and it was amazing. A++

  • Wehaf says:

    Oh, also, "The Devil in the White City" is excellent, and I think should definitely count.

    And I liked "Arthur and George", even though it's a novel. Surely there is a good non-fiction treatment of the topic?

  • The Other Katherine says:

    It's not true crime per se, but any aficionado of true crime or mystery novels should read Death's Acre. It's a fascinating book about the founding of "The Body Farm" at University of Tennessee and the groundbreaking discoveries in forensics that have been made there.

  • slices says:

    A Death in Belmont – Sebastian Junger

  • mutt says:

    "Mississipi Mud" by Edward Hume. I'm not sure how well-known this book is. I read it 10 years ago and it remains one of my favorite true crime books. Mid-80s murder of a Biloxi judge and his mayorial canidate wife leads to a rabbit hole of a case involving the judge's former law partner and the Dixie Mafia, and details the gestation of Biloxi becoming a hub of gambling in the South. Fascinating stuff.

    A granddaddy in the true crime genre: "The French Connection."

    Not so much true crime as police memoir: "Blue Blood" by Edward Conlon. It's such a great chronicle of the drudgery of police work. Long as hell, but I could not put it down.

  • mutt says:

    Mississippi, rather.

    Oh, and "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34" by Bryan Borrough.

  • Heather C. says:

    I would like to second Simon's "Homicide" – one of my favorite books that spawned my all-time #1 tv show.

    Thumbs up to the Onion Field (just thinking about that book hurts), Devil in the White City, and Small Sacrifices/Stranger Beside Me. In Cold Blood is a no-brainer. However, I was also hooked by Rule's Green River Running Red, I think in large part because I knew so little about the case in the first place and it seemed so vast.

    Another thought: if JFK needs its own shelf, would the next one down be for Jack the Ripper?

    I'm about to start Under the Banner of Heaven when I finish my current book. And I am totally on-board on that blog, Sars!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    That sound you hear is my Amazon wishlist growing like the beanstalk of the fairytale.

    Agreed on "Blue Blood."

    Trog got me a corker for my birthday: Paul Collins's "The Murder of the Century." If you liked "Devil in the White City," you'd like that one.

    I had an online true-crime book club for a while, and we read the girl-in-box book for that, among others (we also read "The Monster of Florence," which I would not recommend in audiobook form).

  • attica says:

    Mike McAlary's Buddy Boys, for the good-cops-gone-bad angle. I might even throw in one or both of the Mark Fuhrman (yeah, yeah, I know) books, Murder in Greenwich/Brentwood. But all the ones listed above are worthy.

  • Natalie says:

    A true old-school classic (at least for this Georgia girl): Murder in Coweta County by Margaret Anne Barnes. Also a movie starring Johnny Cash and Andy Griffith.

    Seconding the recs for Columbine by Cullen and Dr. Bill Bass's Body Farm nonfiction Death's Acre and Beyond the Body Farm. I met him when I worked at a bookstore in Knoxville and he was doing a signing for Death's Acre. Had no clue who he was at the time, so we just talked about his grandkids. Later I worked at a library across from the Farm and realized who and what he was. I could have kicked myself.

  • Jen says:

    My all time fave is Helter Skelter. I reread that one every couple of years. I also pick up Dead Men Do Tell Tales by Robert Maples pretty frequently. He was a forensic anthropologist, and it has lots of his stories in there. Fascinating stuff. Another that stuck with me was Righteous Carnage: The List Murders. I don't recall if the book is actually good or not, but that story is one I go back to a lot. It's just so…something. Sad, moving, many things.

  • Lore says:

    In the things to leave *off* the list category: "Death in the City of Light" was a remarkably dull book about a completely fascinating topic (a serial killer operating in Nazi-occupied Paris, claiming to help refugees escape and instead murdering them).

    In the con men category: Amy Reading's "The Mark Inside" and Mark Seal's "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit."

    In the art theft/fraud category: two books about Dutch forger Han van Meegeren came out around the same time; I don't remember which one I actually read, so I'm counting them as one pick–yes, it's cheating–but the two are Edward Dolnick's "The Forger's Spell" and Jonathan Lopez's "The Man Who Made Vermeers."

  • Cara says:

    Can I recommend a book to avoid? "The Island of Lost Maps" by Miles Harvey was not nearly as good as I (and the author) hoped it would be.

    Otherwise, I can only think of true crime essayists at the moment. I like both Skip Hollandsworth's regular articles for Texas Monthly and Calvin Trillin's less frequent pieces in the New Yorker.

  • Isabel C. says:

    Seconding Schechter (he more generally has The Serial Killer Files and the A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, both of which make for awesome leave-me-the-fuck-alone train reading), Helter Skelter, Under the Banner of Heaven (best, by which I mean "fascinatingly gross", part was when he described the FLDS communities that are so inbred that women give birth to "blobs of flesh" on a regular basis) and anything by Douglas.

    I particularly love the bit of Helter Skelter where Bugliosi is explaining the Manson cult's end-of-the-world beliefs, and you can basically hear him ending every sentence with "…no, seriously. No, I KNOW, but seriously."

  • Laura G says:

    I don't read much true crime (though I do have to third Columbine), but another blogger I read does, and while I can't vouch for most of the books, I can vouch for his taste in other things, so his blog might be worth checking out for ideas:

    http://copperbadge.livejournal.com/tag/book%20reviews

  • Penguinlady says:

    I have not read it yet, but it's on the list: The Killer of Little Shepherds. It also chronicles the birth of forensics, which I personally find interesting.

    Another to stay away from is Patricia Cornwell's Jack the Ripper book. It's been thoroughly debunked and read like she was the heroine herself, very selfishly written. The Ripper ouvre is probably another whole subset.

  • Sandman says:

    Also a movie starring Johnny Cash and Andy Griffith.

    … Well, those aren't the first two names I thought of for your basic true-crime genre picture, I'll give them that.

    Under the Banner of Heaven (best, by which I mean "fascinatingly gross", part was when he described the FLDS communities that are so inbred that women give birth to "blobs of flesh" on a regular basis)

    Aaaand skipping lunch!

  • Nicole says:

    I don't read a ton of true crime, but now I'm eager to read some of the recommendations!

    I read and enjoyed "True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa" by Michael Finkel which Sars reviewed on this site several years ago.

    I also really enjoyed "The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter" by Jason Kersten.

    I have some art forgery books on my kindle but haven't gotten to them yet!

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