While fictional stories of murder and mayhem are horrifying to read, there are real-life events that put them to shame. The true crime genre attempts to chronicle those events to help readers understand what really happened.
True crime books aren’t easy reads; they’re loaded with violence and human suffering. Yet, they remain popular despite these dark subjects.
Perhaps it’s because they provide a window into the mysterious criminal mind. Or, maybe it’s part of our survival instincts: we can’t help but imagine what we would do in the same situations as the victims.
Best True Crime Books
Though true crime books largely concern murderers and serial killers, some have begun exploring other aspects of real-life crimes. I made this list to cover true crime from multiple angles.
Additionally, most of these books are now classics of the genre. If you’re new to true crime, then these are the books you need to read first.
1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
In 1959, two ex-convicts snuck into the Clutter family’s home, planning to steal what they heard were large amounts of cash kept by the family on hand. After murdering the family, they made off with only a pair of binoculars, a portable radio, and $50 in cash.
This is the book that launched the true crime genre to its current level of popularity and profitability. It’s the second most popular true crime book, just behind Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter.
2. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
In the summer of 1969, the Manson family began a series of murders that took the lives of then-pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four other people, the reason being a supposed race war that the murders were meant to start.
Bugliosi was the prosecutor for this case. This is his first-hand account of one of the most shocking murders in American history.
3. The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
Realizing that you’ve been friends with a serial killer is a surreal experience. And that’s exactly what Ann Rule went through when her friend, Ted Bundy, is outed as a monster, she wonders how she could have missed it.
What makes this a classic is its point of view into one of America’s most notorious serial killers. It’s not a deep dive into his crimes, but a study of his character and motivations.
4. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
Gary Gilmore robbed two men and murdered them in cold blood. After being tried and convicted, he caught the nation’s interest by demanding he die for his crimes.
Mailer traces Gilmore’s story from his personal history to the scene of the crime and eventual death by firing squad. Behind it all is the desire to understand how a man would court death as passionately as Gilmore did.
5. Columbine by Dave Cullen
In 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacred 13 people before committing suicide. It became the deadliest school shooting at the time, with “Columbine” becoming the byword for school shootings.
Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on the scene. Here, he puts together an extensive account of what really happened and what drove the culprits to murder.
6. American Predator by Maureen Callahan
Over the span of 14 years, Israel Keyes would fly out of Alaska and hunt prey. Using previously stashed “kill kits,” he would kill and dispose of people within hours. Then he’d fly back home as if nothing ever happened.
Maureen Callahan investigates Keyes’s meticulous methodology in murder and chronicles how the FBI finally caught up to him.
7. Chasing the Devil by Sheriff David Reichert
In the ’80s and ’90s, Washington was terrorized by a spree of strangled women. The body count steadily climbed to 49, with the police unable to identify a likely suspect.
Sheriff David Reichert was one of the first on the case. This is his first-hand account of almost two decades worth of investigation to finally catch the culprit.
8. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
A respected antique dealer kills a local male prostitute and then endures four trials before being acquitted. The difficulty in the case is whether it was self-defense or arranged to look like one.
What makes this book great is how the case draws in the town’s residents. Grievances and alliances are exposed as people begin to debate what really happened.
9. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Behind the stunning glitter of the 1893 World’s Fair, Henry H. Holmes began constructing his murder castle. It became his lair, where he killed an estimated 200 or more people.
Here, Larson juxtaposes the lives of two men. One is a gifted architect, shaping the landscape of American cities while the other is a doctor with a penchant for murder.
10. Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
Brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty insist that God made them kill their younger brother’s wife and child. But was it truly divine revelation or the result of misguided beliefs?
Krauker delves deep into Mormonism and its many cotroversial beliefs. He explores how these ideas can become dangerous when exercised by the most unstable minds.
11. Billion Dollar Whale by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope
Businessman Jho Low managed to siphon some $4.5 billion from an investment fund into his own accounts. Those fooled include financial giant Goldman Sachs, Malaysian officials, and a host of celebrities.
This book is an investigation into how a mild-mannered social climber pulled off the heist of the century.
12. Party Monster by James St. James
James St. James was no stranger to New York’s club scene. When his friend and fellow club kid Michael Alig is covicted of murdering a rival, he must contend with the knowledge that the party is now at an end.
St. James offers an inside look at New York’s club culture during its heyday. It’s a story of excess and mayhem, where rivalries run deeper than any other social connection.
13. American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin
In 1974, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was abducted by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Months later she was finally found — not as a captive, but as a full member of the organization that took her.
Toobin explores how politics, violence, and radical thinking can drastically shift a person’s world view.
14. The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American who was lynched for allegedly offending a white woman. His death became a catalyst for civil rights efforts that eventually led to a more equal society.
But people forget that behind the historical significance is a boy whose life was unfairly taken. Tyson delves into Till’s life to better understand the boy that came to be a symbol of a movement.
15. Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos, was regarded as the next Steve Jobs. Her startup promised to revolutionize the medical industry. But her technology didn’t work, its results built on lies.
Here, Carreyrou details Holmes’s rise to prominence and the inner workings of Theranos.
Reading True Crime Books
At first glance, reading true crime books seems like it could be damaging to the human psyche, especially when you’re reading about the gruesome ones.
But scientists have proven that true crime has an effect similar to watching horror. These stories are simply fun to read; when we read true crime, our bodies produce that delightful cocktail of chemicals that stimulate us. Some of these include adrenaline and “feel-good chemicals” like serotonin and dopamine.
One other reason why we love true crime is because we’re fascinated with evil. Reading about crimes becomes our measuring stick for identifying what’s evil and what’s not.
We want insights into these criminals so we can better judge ourselves and protect our families. But also, we’re fascinated by what they’ve done because we’ll never do the crimes ourselves.
So when you enjoy reading true crime books, don’t suddenly think that you’re identifying with these criminals. It’s just you feeling the satisfaction of fulfilling your curiosities and knowing that justice has been served.