Truly SINISTER - The Ten Best True Crime Books

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Sinister is in theaters this month, a horror film telling the story of Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), a true crime author who moves his family into a house where despicable crimes were once committed. As one might expect, that’s a bad idea. The scares quickly escalate, but Oswalt is so committed to following up his last best-seller with something important, what he calls his In Cold Blood, that he’s not going anywhere until he gets his story.

I wonder how many true crime writers have chased that very dream of publishing their own In Cold Blood? These guys, at least, achieved that dream.


Blood and Money: A True Story of Murder, Passion and Power
Thomas Thompson, 1976

In 1969, Texas oil heiress Joan Robinson was murdered. Her husband, plastic surgeon John Hill, was charged with the murder and then was killed himself, allegedly by a robber. The robber was also killed, by a cop during his arrest. Thompson digs through the lies and layers to investigate what really happened in this messy and ridiculously juicy case.

Why It’s The Best:

Blood and Money is a classic, a frontrunner in the true crime genre, and it’s simple to see why. With narrative ease and sly wit, Thompson dives into Houston’s upper crust and into its seedy underworld with equal glee. As a Houstonian myself, this book was always on my must-read list, but I’d recommend it for any lover of true crime.

Buy Blood and Money from Amazon.com

Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

Erik Larson, 2004

Larson follows Dr. H.H. Holmes, the serial killer who haunted the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, along with the fair’s architect Daniel H. Burnham as he worked tirelessly to ensure the success of that massive exposition. Holmes was an elaborate scam artist, not even really a doctor, but a dangerous fraud who charmed victims back to the labyrinthine Murder Castle he conceived.

Why It’s The Best:

Devil in the White City is riveting, enveloping, as delicious as a beach read but tirelessly researched. Larson weaves the history into a seamless narrative, grasping both the horrific details of Holmes’ murders and the sky-reaching potential of that World’s Fair with its beautiful grounds and the very first Ferris Wheel.

Buy The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America from Amazon.com

Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia

Joseph D. Pistone, 1997

Pistone worked undercover for six years to infiltrate the Bonanno crime family. He is one of the first FBI agents to initiate deep, years-long undercover work and is a legend in the FBI. Pistone reveals how he adjusted his personality, appearance and mannerisms in order to win the trust of some of the least trusting men in the world, convincing even other FBI surveillance teams that he was part of the Mafia.

Why It’s The Best:

Pistone wrote a once in a lifetime eyewitness account of the Mafia world, so shadowy and mysterious to the rest of us, giving a glimpse of what it means to be a “connected guy.” No other true crime novel offers this intimate access, nor does it offer this level of suspense - as we remind ourselves that Pistone’s life was always at risk. And it’s wildly entertaining to boot!

Buy Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia - A True Story by FBI Agent Joseph D. Pistone from Amazon.com

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders
Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, 1974

Another classic, one of the premier books of the genre, Helter Skelter details the grisly Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by the Manson Family. The book was co-written by the attorney who prosecuted the case, Bugliosi, along with noted historical author Curt Gentry, and it gets its title from The Beatles song because, according to Bugliosi, Manson was obsessed with The Beatles.

Why It’s The Best:

Well, it’s terrifying. Helter Skelter is without a doubt the scariest book on this list, one that truly delves into the psyche of one of America’s most frightening villains. The book is bleak and unblinking, unafraid to herald the most gruesome details of the case, but without being tasteless. Helter Skelter merely presents the unadorned, terrifying truth.

Buy Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders from Amazon.com

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
David Simon, 1991

Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon spent a year with detectives from the Baltimore Police Department after working four years on the police beat. He received unfettered access to the homicide unit in 1988, taking a leave of absence from his job to reveal the truth behind the detectives working in one of the most crime-riddled cities in the country.

Why It’s The Best:

The book is engrossing, all-encompassing. Simon lived so deeply in that world while writing the book that the reader can’t help but live there too. He establishes the rules, the slang, the characters – and the grisly stories pile up around this fully developed world. The book inspired the series Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire.

Buy Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets from Amazon.com

In Cold Blood
Truman Capote, 1966

Ahh, the first. Capote created the true crime genre by publishing a book about the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Working with Harper Lee, they interviewed residents, family members and detectives, diligently researching the case and the motives behind convicted killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith.

Why It’s The Best:

He invented the non-fiction novel! None of these books would even be here without In Cold Blood. And beyond that, the book is beautifully, artfully written even while plainly revealing the grim details of the case.

Buy In Cold Blood (Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books) from Amazon.com

Lethal Intent
Sue Russell, 2002

Sue Russell writes about that rare female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, following her from her life as a prostitute through the series of murders she committed on her johns. Russell also writes about Wuornos’ capture, conviction and eventual death by lethal injection on October 9, 2002.

Why It’s The Best:

It’s an unbiased and definitive account of one of the most mysterious serial killers of our time. Russell goes macro with Lethal Intent, giving Wuornos’ early life history all the way through her death, offering an unparalleled amount of context to these dreadful crimes.

Buy Lethal Intent from Amazon.com

The Stranger Beside Me
Ann Rule, 1980

The Stranger Beside Me is unlike any other book on this list, as author Ann Rule was friends with Ted Bundy long before learning that he was a serial killer. They worked together on a suicide crisis hotline and grew quite close. She uses the correspondence they shared during their friendship along with unerring research to craft a portrait of the charismatic and deadly Bundy.

Why It’s The Best:

This is the first book of one of America’s most popular true crime writers. Ann Rule offers a singular level of intimacy as she puts the lie to any expectations that we would know a killer if he were among us. Even as the evidence mounts, she writes of her reluctance to believe Bundy was capable of such appalling acts, before finally accepting that the stranger beside her was truly a monster.

Buy The Stranger Beside Me from Amazon.com

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective
Kate Summerscale, 2009

The international bestseller tells the story of Jonathan Whicher, the first modern detective, later immortalized as the fictional detectives we know and love, like Sgt. Cuff and Sam Spade. In 1860, three-year-old Saville Kent is brutally murdered in an isolated country house inhabited by a limited number of suspects, and although Whicher correctly names the murderer, he sees his reputation ruined.

Why It’s The Best:

This true story has all the ingredients of the greatest detective novels, written in a marvelously spry manner by Kate Summerscale. The book is fascinating and eloquent, fastidiously researched and details the birth of modern forensic investigation. It reads as a wonderful mystery yarn that just so happens to be historically accurate.

Buy The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective from Amazon.com

Wiseguy
Nicholas Pileggi, 1986

Wiseguy is the chronicle of Henry Hill, the kid who grew up in Brooklyn to become a mobster and eventually an FBI informant. Hill worked as muscle for the Luchese crime family before turning against his former associates and entering the Witness Protection Program. The book was later used as inspiration for Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

Why It’s The Best:

Pileggi makes the gangster life a vivid reality as he follows this racketeer, drug dealer, hijacker, smuggler, burglar and eventual rat. Written with a crackling voice and unembellished precision, Wiseguy brings the reader into an enigmatic world and shows us how glamorous and dangerous it really is.

Buy Wiseguy from Amazon.com


Now you go! What true crime titles belong on this list? Speak up in the comments.

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Comments

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade October 22, 2012 - 8:45am

Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of the Serial Killer Next Door by Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, L. Kelly, and Hurst Laviana - I read this after reading the notes to Stephen King's "A Good Marriage". This book is a group effort by writers from The Witchita Eagle who had to live in Witchita during the years that Dennis Rader was killing. About as scary as Helter Skelter...

Altogether a great list! I've read half of these...

might include The Girl Next Door except that Ketchum so fictionalized the original account (keeping all that mattered) that TGND really is fiction...

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson October 22, 2012 - 8:55am

Man, so many of those sound so good. I didn't know Ann Rule was buddies with Bundy. That's crazy!

While not strictly a true crime novel, Under The Banner of Heaven is another good one.

Meredith's picture
Meredith from Houston, Texas is reading Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith October 22, 2012 - 9:03am

@Boone - I've never read Bind, Torture, Kill - will definitely have to check it out. Thanks!

@Josh - I know! I always wonder if, in retrospect, she's glad she unwittingly befriended a serial killer, as that first, great book sparked her career as a bestselling true crime author.

wickedvoodoo's picture
wickedvoodoo from Mansfield, England is reading stuff. October 22, 2012 - 2:10pm

Helter Skelter is a very absorbing book. I found it more unnerving in places that I do most horror fiction.

I highly recommend it.

Dave's picture
Dave from a city near you is reading constantly October 23, 2012 - 6:08am

The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh. The true story of a landmark incident.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading Tons of LGBT nonfiction so he can judge a literary contest October 24, 2012 - 4:32am

Great list! For any other Manson freaks out there (I confess I've long been a little too fascinated by the Family), I recommend THE FAMILY by Ed Sanders. HELTER SKELTER is a great book, but I like THE FAMILY better. It's less self-serving and doesn't overly sentinementalize "the little hippie girl" Linda Kasabian the way the Bugliosi does.

--Ed

lyndsi17's picture
lyndsi17 November 25, 2013 - 11:15am

Best True Crime book I've ever read is "House of Secrets" by Lowell. It's about Eddie Lee Sexon. Very bizarre and memorable story.