True crime is everywhere these days. From podcasts to TV shows to movies and conventions, it’s almost in the air that we breathe. This is the world of true crime fans. We’re just living here.
But why do we want these stories so much? For them to be on the page or the screen, we have to spend a lot of time with them. When it comes to literary true crime, these stories grip us in a way that no other genre does. Whenever there is a book that shocks and awes people, there are also real-life stories that make the book seem like it was written by a child. The best true crime writers don’t make violence and human suffering into a big deal, but they give a lot of background and background to the crimes they study. In these great books, we see how everyone’s lives, from the perpetrators and the investigators, to the victims and their families, are changed in a big way by the destruction that is shown in them. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite stories, which cover a wide range of crimes and show how they affect society. You can leave the light on after reading if you need to. We won’t mind.
Last Call, by Elon Green
Green tells a gripping true crime story about the Last Call Killer, a serial killer who preyed on gay men in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. Green emphasizes the shameful lives of the killer’s known victims, who have been forgotten. He also thinks about how their murders shaped their lives and how homophobia played a role in how they lived and died. Green paints a detailed picture of the gay bar scene of the time, which was ravaged by the AIDS crisis, and the law enforcement indifference that let the killer lure men to their deaths. Forensic investigation and poignant tribute to men who were killed are combined in these pages by author Green.
The Real Lolita, by Sarah Weinman
Every great book has a piece of truth behind it. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, that shred of truth was a dark one: the 1948 kidnapping of 11-year-old Sally Horner, a New Jersey tween who was taken by a pedophile and held hostage for two years by him. Though Nabokov said he wasn’t inspired by Horner’s terrible experience, Weinman says he was. Weinman looked through legal documents, public records, and interviews to figure out what Nabokov knew about Horner’s case and how he tried to hide it. When Horner is put back in the mythos of Lolita, it’s an act of reclamation. It’s also an amazing amount of literary detective work.
Savage Appetites, by Rachel Monroe
For true crime fanatics and Law & Order superfans, Monroe has written a brilliant book where cultural criticism meets sociological survey in a methodical examination of just what it is about murder that obsesses us. Monroe looks at four cases to see why women are drawn to the grotesque celebrity of true crime, and what that shows about our culture. After reading Savage Appetites, you won’t be able to enjoy true crime in the same way again.
Party Monste, by James St. James
This is a true story about a murder in a specific group: the New York City club kids of the late eighties and early nineties who partied like it was their job. By one of the most outrageous insiders, Party Monster is a look at everything that makes the party scene great and bad. It includes everything from sex to drugs to fashion. The work ends with the conviction of a club promoter named Michael Alig in 1997 for a particularly heinous crime.
American Fire, by Monica Hesse
Most true crime books don’t have a body count, but this one does. The story of serial arsonists who tore through the economically depressed rural Accomack County, American Fire is more about the good people of the area and the volunteer firefighters working overtime than it is about the villains—but even then, and with no spoilers, the Freudian motivation of the culprits are fascinating.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara
Suddenly, author Michelle McNamara died while she was writing a book about the Golden State Killer that changed the way people thought about the case. That the book feels triumphant even after tragedy upon tragedy is a testament to McNamara’s skill as a reporter and the determination of her husband (comedian Patton Oswalt) to tie up loose ends and push forward with the publication.
Shot in the Heart, by Mikal Gilmore
Norm Mailer wrote The Executioner’s Song, which told the story of Gary Gilmore, the first murderer executed in the United States for nearly a decade. Gilmore was the first person to be put to death in the U.S. for nearly a decade. It makes sense that Mikal, Gary’s younger brother, is a well-known journalist in his own right. He can tell the story from a different angle, weaving a multigenerational story of dysfunction, abuse, and what drives a person to become a killer.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale
The best detective in Victorian London was Jonathan Whicher. This is because the job of a detective wasn’t well known at the time. It was in 1860 when a young child was found dead with its throat cut. Whicher was called in to look into it. This isn’t good news: His hunch that the child’s family was involved turned out to be true, but there was no way for him to prove it at the time. The clever and tough Whicher became the real-life model for so many of literature’s best detectives. His story ends with what he thinks is a defeat.
Columbine, by Dave Cullen
School shootings happen in the United States almost every day. It can be easy to not pay attention to them at all. His work on the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 is more important now than ever. Even as he details how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold managed to plan and execute a massacre, he is careful to give dignity to all involved—the teachers, the students, their parents.
Blood Will Out, by Walter Kirn
When a fiction writer meets a real-life Talented Mr. Ripley, what will happen? Author Walter Kirn takes readers inside his relationship with the man he knew as Clark Rockefeller, a murderer and swindler who presented himself as a scion of one of America’s wealthiest families. Kirn wonders why he was so swayed by this impostor’s story, even as he lays out all of the clues and evidence that his friend was a con artist.