True crime books for Mindhunter fans

Mindhunter, Netflix

Netflix blockbuster Mindhunter has returned for season two and so has our unhealthy obsession with real-life crimes. David Fincher’s slick and artfully-directed show is based on the FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit who revolutionised the study of serial killers by using new profiling techniques to really get beneath the skin, so to speak, of their crimes. With appearances from the most renowned killers in history, including Ed Kemper, BTK, ‘Son of Sam’ David Berkowitz and Charles Manson, it documents some of the most macabre and intriguing cases in history.

Of course, books have been doing this for years. So if Mindhunter – or Serial or Making A Murderer, for that matter – has piqued your interest to begin exploring society’s most depraved and salacious transgressions, this is the list 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.

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.

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