It’s no secret that people across the world are addicted to true crime.
True-crime documentaries, docu-dramas, and above all, podcasts, have become so popular that shows like and Only Murders in the Building can poke fun at the trend. Poker Face
But true crime didn’t begin with
Serial or My Favorite Murder, or any of the recent miniseries based on salacious true crimes, from The Staircase to Candy (or Love and Death, which, like Candy, tells the story of a Texas housewife accused of murder). People have been interested in crime for as long as stories have been told — Shakespeare’s plays are full of murder, sometimes featuring real (royal) people, for instance — and in the early 20th century, American newspapers printed every detail of every murder case they could find.
Starting with Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel”
In Cold Blood in 1966, that fascination birthed a genre: “true crime.” Today, book-length investigations like Capote’s still allow journalists to dig deep into a single story more fully than any other medium. Sometimes those stories are historical oddities being told for the first time, and sometimes they’re urgent, of-the-moment investigations into contemporary social problems.
The books on this list span historical eras and geographic place. Some are pulpy, while others deal with serious questions about racial violence and prejudice. But above all, they tell gripping stories. Below, 30 true-crime books to add to your reading list.
1 Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession
Podcasts about women being murdered are, perhaps surprisingly, popular amongst female listeners — as are true-crime documentaries and books like those on this list. In
Savage Appetites, Texas-based journalist Rachel Monroe explores why women are so drawn to the morbid and violent. As she shows, the phenomenon isn’t unique to the 21st century: Women have been fascinated by violence for centuries. Monroe both explains this phenomenon and critiques it, making her book a must-read for fans as well as skeptics of true crime. 2 In Cold Blood
Though people have always been fascinated by true stories of murder and violence, true crime as we know it began with Truman Capote’s
In Cold Blood in 1966. Capote traveled to Holcomb, Kansas, to investigate and write about a quadruple murder, becoming close to the killers in the process. Though the book is not entirely accurate — Capote famously did not take notes while conducting interviews, and altered some key facts about the case — it is nevertheless a cornerstone of the genre, and aptly described as a “nonfiction novel.” 3 Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
Harper Lee accompanied her childhood friend Truman Capote on his research trips for
In Cold Blood, and was later inspired to take on a true crime project of her own. She abandoned it before publishing, but Casey Cep picks up where she left off in Furious Hours. The crime in question, which Cep thoroughly investigates herself, was the murder of the Rev. Willie Maxwell in rural Alabama. Maxwell had been suspected of murdering his wife and other family members; when he turned up dead himself, the case got even more complicated. Cep deftly balances that story with Lee’s, and readers interested in either subject will find much to enjoy here. 4 The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Erik Larson’s bestseller chronicles both the building of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition — known as the White City — and the murderer who haunted its grounds. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes owned a hotel close to the fairgrounds in Chicago, called the World’s Fair Hotel, where he lured almost 200 victims and murdered them in secret windowless rooms. There’s a reason this book became an instant sensation upon its publication in 2003: Larson’s reporting is impeccable, but just as importantly, he knows how to tell a gripping story.
5 The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
Kate Summerscale is best known for another Victorian true crime book,
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, but The Wicked Boy, which investigates a pair of young boys who murdered their mother, is her best and most humane work. What at first seems like an inexplicably horrifying crime becomes more understandable as Summerscale explores the darker side of Victorian family life, and a book that initially seems like a story about violence transforms into one about humanity’s capacity for rehabilitation. 6 The Patient Assassin: A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge, and India's Quest for Independence
Anita Anand offers a different perspective on British history in
The Patient Assassin, which begins in Amritsar, India, in 1919, where British troops massacred Indian protestors. Twenty years later, Udham Singh gets revenge, pulling off the intricately planned murder of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the British colonial governor who ordered the killings. Anand carefully peels back every layer of history and myth that has built up around this story — now a legendary tale in India — and in the process paints a nuanced portrait of Singh and the world in which he lived. 7 The Ghosts of Eden Park: The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America
Karen Abbott tells the story of George Remus, a wildly successful Prohibition-era bootlegger who lived large and had no problem bribing officials to keep them off his back. He finally ran into trouble when Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a female prosecutor working for the Justice Department, decided it was her mission to charge and convict him. Their cat and mouse game would be worthy of a book on its own, but Remus’ story also involves something much more serious (and juicy): murder.
8 Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Acclaimed narrative nonfiction writer David Grann has written plenty of compelling books and magazine features, but nothing as gripping — or chilling — as
Killers of the Flower Moon, which Martin Scorsese has adapted as soon-to-be released film starring Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio. The book follows one Osage Native America woman living in the 1920s, as her older sister, her mother, and then over 20 more Osage people are murdered. The Osage happened to be living on some of the richest oil land in the country at the time — a fact that wasn’t a coincidence. 9 Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham
Social justice activist Melanie S. Morrison vividly tells the story of Willie Peterson, a Black man living in Birmingham, Alabama in 1931 who was wrongfully convicted of capturing and murdering three young white women. Peterson’s conviction spurred local activism, and the NAACP and Communist Party got involved in attempting to clear Peterson’s name.
Murder on Shades Mountain is both a gripping true crime story and an illuminating look at the Depression-era South. 10 Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster
It was uncommon for Black women to go to college in the early 20th century, let alone law school — yet that’s exactly what Eunice Hunton Carter did. Soon, she found herself prosecuting Italian mob bosses in New York City in the 1940s, a feat that made her one of the most famous Black women in the country. Stephen L. Carter explores his own family history in this sensational true crime tale, in the process unearthing an extraordinary, overlooked woman who deserves to be remembered.
11 The Blood of Emmett Till
It’s tempting to think that everything has already been said about the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Famously, Till’s open casket funeral, which displayed how badly his body had been brutalized, sparked a new generation of civil rights leaders, and his name remains a touchstone across America today. Yet Timothy B. Tyson’s meticulously researched book offers a fresh look at the actual circumstances of the crime — including shocking testimony from witnesses — as well as broader historical insight into the crime’s legacy.
12 Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America Devil in the Grove begins with a white teenage girl claiming that she’d been raped by young black men, a grimly common trope in the Jim Crow South. The local Ku Klux Klan quickly stormed the town, unleashing terror. But not long after, legendary civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall arrived to investigate the case. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gilbert King excavates detailed, previously unknown records, and paints a vivid portrait of Marshall well before he became a Supreme Court justice. 13 Race Against Time: A Reporter Reopens the Unsolved Murder Cases of the Civil Rights Era
Jerry Mitchell, a veteran reporter in Mississippi, dedicated himself to investigating hate crimes from the civil rights era decades after the fact, including the infamous Mississippi Burning murders of three civil rights activists. In
Race Against Time, Mitchell chronicles his probe into these killings and others, detailing how he built up enough evidence to make legal cases against the perpetrators — which led to the prosecution of the Klansmen involved in the crimes. 14 Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime
Spike Lee’s 2018 film
BlacKkKlansman introduced viewers to the surreal story of Ron Stallworth, the first Black police detective in Colorado Springs, who inadvertently wound up getting recruited into the Ku Klux Klan. Though he had initially had signed up for the group’s the mailing list to keep track of the organization, he was soon personally asked to join — prompting him and and his white partner, Chuck, to launch an elaborate scam in which they both played versions of Ron Stallworth in person and over the phone, all the while sabotaging the Klan’s activities in the area. 15 The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World
The Real Lolita, Sarah Weinman digs into a major mid-century scandal — the abduction of an 11-year-old girl, Sally Horner — which served as the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita. Weinman investigates both Horner’s story and the genesis of Lolita, which Nabokov insisted was unrelated to Horner — despite notes he took about a newspaper article related to her disappearance. 16 We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence
In this gripping memoir-slash-history, Harvard grad Becky Cooper returns to her collegiate stomping grounds to investigate the unsolved murder of a graduate anthropology student and Radcliffe alum in 1969. Jane Britton’s killing has haunted the school for decades, and in her book, Cooper explores not only Britton’s life and death but also the toxic culture of Harvard’s anthropology department and her own relationship to the school and the crime.
17 Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York
Last Call, Elon Green carefully pieces together the lives of both a serial killer who preyed on gay men at a gay bar in Manhattan in the early 1990s and five of his victims. Though Green documents the killer’s early life — he was bullied for appearing effeminate — and unearths a murder he committed in his youth, the book’s true focus and heart is with the victims, whom Green takes special care to depict as complex, rounded individuals whose deaths were not taken seriously by investigators due to their sexuality. 18 The Orchid Thief
Readers might know Susan Orlean from her work in
The New Yorker or from her recent popular books The Library Book and On Animals. But she first broke out with The Orchid Thief, a sprawling investigation into orchid smuggling throughout history, with a particular focus on John Laroche, an enterprising smuggler in Florida. The book was later adapted by Charlie Kaufman into the surreal film Adaptation, featuring Meryl Streep as a heightened version of Orlean. 19 Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
Though Bryan Stevenson is only 63, he’s already acquired legendary status as one of America’s foremost living civil rights lawyers and activists. When he was a young man, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, where he met Walter McMillan, a man on death row for a murder he insisted he hadn’t committed. Stevenson dove into McMillan’s case, an experience he recounts in this award-winning memoir that reveals the political machinations and corruption behind America’s criminal justice system.
20 I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
The late true crime writer Michelle McNamara was obsessed with capturing the serial sexual predator and murderer known as the Golden State Killer. She chronicles this obsession, as well as the Golden State Killer’s crimes, in
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which was published posthumously after her sudden and premature death. True crime fans will no doubt recognize themselves in her obsessive desire to solve the case — which her work, incredibly, helped to do. 21 Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery
From 2007 to 2010, five female sex workers who advertised on Craigslist were found dead at Gilgo Beach in Long Island. Police concluded that the murders were the work of a serial killer, but due to the victims’ professions, both police and local media quickly lost interest in the crimes. Journalist Robert Kolker took a different tack, dedicating himself to learning as much as he could not only about the circumstances of each victim’s death but also about their lives.
Lost Girls is a moving, haunting tribute to all five women, put together with empathy and care. 22 Unbelievable: The Story of Two Detectives' Relentless Search for the Truth
Prestige TV fans may have first encountered
Unbelievable in the form of Netlix’s limited series starring Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Katilyn Dever, but the book came first. Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong uncovered an infuriating story of police dismissing the experience of a teen rape victim, and the female detectives who, years later, wound up re-investigating her case when they realized that the same man may have committed her attack as well as the attacks they were investigating in a different state. 23 Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe may be even better known for the book he wrote after this one, Empire of Pain — a damning investigation into the Sackler family and the opioid epidemic — but Say Nothing is his most immersive and emotionally harrowing work so far. Keefe begins with the murder and disappearance of Jean McConville, a mother of 10, in Belfast in 1972, and from there expands his scope to encompass the lives of I.R.A. terrorists over the decades and the political progression of the Troubles, all while slowly putting the pieces of McConville’s disappearance together. 24 A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel: Murder, Money, and an Epic Power Struggle in China
British businessman Neil Haywood was murdered in Chongqing, a municipality in southwest China, in 2011 — a murder that turned out to be only one small piece of a larger story of corruption involving regional Communist Party boss Bo Xilai. In this expertly reported account, Chinese journalists Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang not only carefully unspool the story of Bo Xilai’s misdeeds but also build a larger, more damning portrait of China’s Communist Party leadership, which is plagued by endemic corruption and excess.
25 Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City
Seven Fallen Feathers, Ojibwe writer Tanya Talaga tells the stories of seven young people from Indigenous communities in Canada, all of whom were forced to leave their homes and travel to Thunder Bay, in southern Ontario, for schooling. Talaga’s rich portrait of these seven people encompasses their lives and deaths — which were initially dismissed as accidents by local coroners — as well as Canada’s history of forced residential schooling for Indigenous youth, a traumatic legacy that, as Talaga shows, lives on today. 26 Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
Like Talaga, Jessica McDiarmid takes on the lives and deaths of young Indigenous Canadians in
Highway of Tears. McDiarmid, though, narrows her focus to one particularly treacherous stretch of highway in British Columbia where women and girls are known to disappear or be murdered. McDiarmid pays careful attention to the victims and their families while also analyzing the wider societal ills that have contributed to the crisis of violence against Indigenous women in Canada — and law enforcement’s negligence in addressing it. 27 There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno tells the story of Colombia’s explosion of right-wing violence in the late 1990s through three central characters: a human rights activist who was assassinated, a prosecutor, and a journalist. Sánchez-Moreno weaves the stories of these three people together to paint a picture of Colombia’s corrupt regime as well as the people who resisted it — one of whom remains under threat as a result of their actions.
28 Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter's Journey Through a Country's Descent into Darkness
Midnight in Mexico, Alfredo Corchado focuses on an older drug problem than the opioid epidemic: drug trafficking from Mexico to the United States. Corchado’s interest in the violence that results from drug trafficking wasn’t abstract: He was targeted personally in 2007. Instead of fleeing, he chose to investigate the threat, a decision that pulled him deeper and deeper into Mexico’s drug cartel’s and government corruption — and put him increasingly at risk. 29 The Daughters of Juarez: A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border
Juárez, the city that lies opposite El Paso across the Rio Grande, has been wracked by femicides for decades, beginning in the early 1990s and peaking in 2010. The crisis was so severe that the femicides inspired TV shows, movies, and novels. But although journalists and investigators have many theories as to what caused them, no definitive explanation has ever emerged. Although there’s no easy answer to the tragedy, this book provides the most detailed and comprehensive investigation into the murders — and how Mexican politicians tried to cover them up.
30 Beneath the Tamarind Tree: A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram
Award-winning journalist Isha Sesay, originally from Sierra Leone, puts the skill and experience she developed as head of CNN’s Africa coverage to good use in
Beneath the Tamarind Tree. This gripping investigation into the 2014 abduction of 276 girls from Chibok, Nigeria, by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram, looks at both the government’s anemic response to the kidnapping and the fallout for some of the girls who managed to return home.
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