If it's jaw-dropping true crime you want, it's jaw-dropping true crime you shall have.
If it's jaw-dropping true crime you want, it's jaw-dropping true crime you shall have.
If three things are certain during this period of national isolation, they are these: 1) You will gain a new appreciation of the uplifting powers of sunlight. 2) You will think more about toilet roll than you ever previously thought possible. 3) You will watch the Netflix blockbuster Tiger King.
Tiger King, if you've not yet heard about it, is the isolation-era internet's latest obsession. Words alone don't have the power to do justice to all its twists and quirks: the see-them-to-believe-them personalities, the polyamorous cat cults, vanishing husbands, tiger-sanctuary feuds, murder-for-hire plots, the incredibly libellous low-budget music videos... Joe Exotic's glorious peroxide mullet. In short, it's a true-crime documentary with an awful lot going on. And it's completely addictive.
Of course, books have been revealing true crime for years. So if Tiger King – or Serial, or Making a Murderer for that matter – has piqued your interest to begin exploring society’s most depraved transgressions, we have some great reads for you. From groundbreaking journalists to bestselling fiction writers to, in one case, the killer themselves, these titles offer a range of perspectives into some of the most notorious crimes ever to take place, exploring not just the psychology of the perpetrators but the devastation left in their wake.
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep (2019)
This, according to Cep, is 'the story Harper Lee wanted to write... and the story of why she couldn't.' Years after the To Kill A Mocking Bird author helped her friend Truman Capote research and write In Cold Blood (see below), she set out to unravel her own true-crime mystery.
Reverend Willie Maxwell had been accused of murdering five of his relatives - including two wives - in 1970s rural Alabama, and getting rich on the insurance money. But a good lawyer got him off. Then he was sensationally shot dead at the funeral of his final victim. His murderer was acquitted too, thanks to the very same lawyer who had got Maxwell off previously. That's when Harper Lee came to town.
Lee spent a year reporting the case, and many more trying to write it. But she never did. Why she never finished the book has become a literary mystery in itself. Furious Hours is a book wrought with tension and intrigue as we follow Lee's attempts to make sense of a complex story. It is, as The Fifth Risk author Michael Lewis wrote, a book that 'makes a magical little leap... from being a superbly written true-crime story to the sort of story that even Lee would have been proud to write.'
All-American Murder by James Patterson (2018)
When crime-fiction king James Paterson turns his pen to true crime, you know it's worth a punt. And this book is explosive. It tells the story of one of the most notorious true-crime stories of the last decade: that of Aaron Hernandez, once the NFL's youngest ever player. Such was his talent that he shot through the professional system, soon landing a contract with the New England Patriots worth $40 million. Handsome and charming, he seemed to live the perfect sports-star life. Until, his life took a murderous turn.
In 2015, he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his fiancee’s sister’s boyfriend. Then, two years later, he was mysteriously found dead in his cell. Those are merely the bones – there is far more to this story, much of which readers unfamiliar with the subject will find hard to believe. Only, it is all true, and told with all the vim and pace as you'd expect from one of America's best-loved thriller writers.
The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town by John Grisham (2006)
1982. A young cocktail waitress meets a disturbing end. A former minor-league baseball player is convicted of her murder and sentenced to death. He claims he is innocent. And sure enough, soon arises the stink of police corruption and the manipulation of evidence to fill the cracks in a splintering case. Still, a man is on death row despite zero physical evidence against him.
If this sounds like a story you've heard before, wait... described above are merely the bones; there is far more meat on Grisham's first attempt at non-fiction than you could ever at first imagine. This is a book – adapted itself into a Netflix documentary in 2018 – that will shock anyone who holds dear a belief in innocence until proven guilty. It will shake the ethical foundations of anyone who sees sanctity in the death penalty. It shows that fairness is not always an inviolable human right when the law comes under pressure for results.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)
‘Four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives,’ was how Truman Capote described the events of 15 November 1959 when four family members in a farm in rural Kansas were murdered in a crime that left few clues and no apparent motive. Six including the two men eventually caught and hung for it, whose stories form the focal point of this groundbreaking piece of narrative journalism that was initially serialised in The New Yorker and turned Capote into a star.
A meticulous feat of reporting with the propulsion of a great thriller, it more or less invented the blueprint for true-crime storytelling that informs the Netflix docu-series we devour today. A brilliant portrayal of not just of the criminals and their victims but a community changed forever, as Capote told Newsweek in 1962: ‘My book isn’t a crime story. It’s the story of a town’. Though he never did manage to shake some of the controversy surrounding the veracity of his accounts, over 50 years later In Cold Blood stands up as his towering achievement.
People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry (2010)
It was the muggy summer of 2000 when British-born Lucie Blackman vanished in the neon landscape of Tokyo, Japan. A hostess in a district famous for its after-hours revelries, it took until the descent of winter for her fate to be discovered: Lucie was tragically dismembered and dumped in an isolated coastal cave, her head encased in concrete.
People Who Eat Darkness unravels what happened in the hazy months in-between, the apparent failings of the Japanese police force and the awful reality this wasn’t the first time the perpetrator had murdered. When the killer, Obara, was finally tracked down, they discovered a man who routinely drugged and raped women, videotaping his crimes and logging the events in a personal notebook; a sordid detail that became crucial evidence in the case. On the surface People Who Eat Darkness is an insight into a crime committed in an underworld, but it’s also a profound story of grief, handled with unusual sensitivity and compassion.
The Innocent Killer by Michael Griesbach (2014)
The small, humdrum locale of Manitowoc County became a household name in December of 2015, the Christmas we became obsessed with Steven Avery and his family thanks to Making a Murderer, the Netflix show that launched a new age of true crime television.
The Innocent Killer is the inside story on America's most infamous wrongful conviction, which exposes in even more detail than the show, how flaws in the investigation and wider, systemic corruption in the justice system scuppered the case.
My Dark Places by James Ellroy (1996)
James Ellroy was ten years old when he returned home from a weekend away to be told his mother had been found strangled in LA. Her murderer was never found, and the trauma sent Ellroy spiralling into a life of petty crime and addiction in his teenage years. He also developed an obsession with crime fiction and became one of America’s most celebrated and successful writers in the genre.
My Dark Places is the writer’s attempt to come to terms with his past, detailing his return to LA in an attempt to solve the case. With the help of a veteran detective, Ellroy revisits the crime in what amounts to part-memoir-part investigative journalism that also explores just how much a tragedy can shape your life.
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974)
The most famous book about the most famous murder case in American history. The Manson Murders was revisited again this year in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood but the definitive account of the real ‘Family’ and their killing spree of 1969 remains this one, written by the assistant DA and prosecutor of the case. Helter Skelter went on to become the bestselling true crime book in history, and if you enjoy it, try recently published Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties which offers a fresh perspective on the case and its legacy by award-winning investigative journalist Tom O’Neill.
They Walk Among Us by Benjamin and Rosanna Fitton (2019)
For something a little closer to home, They Walk Among Us serves up small-town British true crime in disturbing detail from the husband and wife duo who brought us the successful podcast of the same name. They Walk Among Us covers ten untold stories of crimes committed by so-called ‘normal’ people, including the British army sergeant who deliberately damaged his wife’s parachute so he could begin a new life with the insurance payoff (she survived) and the lodger who took his landlady on a seemingly innocent picnic only to never return.
Pure Evil by Geoffrey Wansell (2018)
Writer Geoffrey Wansell has studied ‘lifers’ for over 20 years and his book, Pure Evil, investigates the criminal justice system in the UK by delving into the stories of renowned murderers from Jeremy Bamber to Rose West and Ian Huntley.
At the heart of Pure Evil is the question of whether the term ‘evil’ has any value in the modern world, as the book builds a passionate case against the concept of ‘life behind bars’. Whether you agree with him or not, Wansell – who describes himself as ‘an old-fashioned liberal at heart who believes society should set itself the highest moral standards’ – has put together a compelling guide to the darker corners of the psyche.
Killing for Company by Brian Masters (1985)
While most true-crime books are by journalists or authors chasing a story, Killing for Company breaks the mould by being co-written by the subject themselves – in this case, Dennis Nilsen, who murdered 15 people over four years before being caught in 1983. Nilsen – who was caught out after blocking his drain with his victim’s remains – had a fetish for ‘caring’ for the corpses of his victims, role-playing scenarios with them, as if still alive.
Compiled by Brian Masters from letters, correspondence and interviews with Nilsen who treated him as a confidante, Killing for Company relays first-hand details of the murders in unsparing detail. Unsurprisingly, the results are chilling.
Give the book-lover in your life something special with one of these gorgeously illustrated stories, ornate classics or coffee table books – or, you know, just treat yourself.
Plus other revelations from the author and actor's conversation with Dolly Alderton about his new food memoir, Taste – captured in the latest episode of the Penguin Podcast.