Serial killers, chilling cold cases, and dramatic abductionsーsome true crime stories are sure to unsettle even the bravest readers among us. If you’re looking to incorporate non-fiction into your reading routine and love a good thrill, these are the top 10 true crime books.
The best books of the genre and this list acknowledge the victims and their loved ones while blending empathy with skillful reporting to create a rapid fire narrative. Whether you’re interested in a fevered hunt for an elusive killer, a girl’s inexplicable disappearance, or the intimate perspective of Ted Bundy’s old colleague, there’s something on this list for everyone. Read at your own risk.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
In the 1970s and 80s, a violent predator known as The Golden State Killer terrorized California communities, committing over fifty sexual assaults and ten murders. Then he abruptly disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.
The case had hit a dead end when crime journalist Michelle McNamara started researching it in the early 2000s. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death, and offers a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. Recently adapted into a stunning HBO series by the same name, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is chill-inducing, totally horrifying, and completely addictive.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Memory and Murder in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
In December 1972, Jean McConville, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of ten, was dragged from her Belfast home by masked intruders, her children clinging to her legs. They never saw her again, but spent the rest of their lives searching for her. Her abduction was one of the most notorious episodes of the bloodbath conflict known as The Troubles, and Say Nothing tracks the trauma and violence that defined a generation in Northern Ireland.
The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most notorious novels of all time, but even literature superfans aren’t usually familiar with the real-life events that inspired the book. The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a literary classic, and tells the story of the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.
Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman explores the tragic circumstances that were adapted into one of the world’s most beloved books.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was a feat of brilliant architecture and planning, meant to represent the best of beauty, technology, and modernity. At the same time, not far from the fairgrounds, local physician H.H. Holmes was constructing a hotel with gruesome secrets and terrifying consequences. Deftly weaving narrative and history, Larson tells the story of a now- notorious serial killer who preyed on tourists and used the glamour of the Fair to lure dozens of victims to their deaths.
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi
One of the most popular true crime books of all time, Helter Skelter spawned a cultural obsession. In the summer of 1969 in Los Angeles, the brutal Tate-LaBianca murders captured headlines across America, caused mass paranoia, and became an immediate symbol of the dark underbelly of the 60s. The story of Charles Manson and his family members permeated the American psyche, dominated popular culture, and effectively marked the end of the decade. Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the Manson trial, tells the gripping story of this infamous crime from an insider’s perspective.
The Stranger Beside Me by Anne Rule
The queen of true crime wrote dozens of books, but Ann Rule’s masterpiece is her particularly harrowing debut. In The Stranger Beside Me, Rule describes her personal relationship with a co-worker whom she later realizes is a serial killer: the handsome and charming—and prolific—murderer Ted Bundy. Combining her perspective as Bundy’s colleague with her job as a crime reporter on the hunt for a savage serial killer, Rule changed the course of true crime with this unforgettable exploration of a man she thought she knew.
The People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Lloyd Parry
Lucie Blackman―tall, blond, twenty-one years old―stepped out into the vastness of Tokyo in the summer of 2000, and disappeared forever. The following winter, her dismembered remains were found buried in a seaside cave. Richard Lloyd Parry’s riveting expose examines the Japanese justice system, Tokyo’s hidden crime ring, and what can drive a person to commit unspeakable atrocities.
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry
In this fast-paced narrative tinged with a hint of the absurd, Douglas Perry recreates Jazz Age Chicago and the media frenzy surrounding two women accused of murdering their lovers: Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. In the 1920s, Annan and Gaertner quickly became front-page criminal celebrities—and inspired Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Watkins to pen a stage production that eventually became the hit musical, Chicago. Driven by a cast of characters and series of events that seem like they must be fiction, The Girls of Murder City will propel you through the glitz and the grotesque of the flapper era.
The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia by Emma Copley Eisenberg
On June 25, 1980 in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, middle-class tourists Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero were murdered in an isolated clearing while hitchhiking to a festival known as the Rainbow Gathering. The events surrounding the murders were shrouded in mystery, suspicion, misinformation, and fear, and Eisenberg follows the threads of this crime through the complex history of Appalachia, forming a searing and wide-ranging portrait of America–its divisions of gender, class, and violence.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
No true crime list could be complete without Capote’s 1966 masterpiece that revolutionized the world of true crime narrative. Although technically billed as a “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood tells the story of the brutal murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 and the investigation that lead to the capture, trial, and execution of the accused killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. A page-turner that has stood the test of time, In Cold Blood generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy for both the victims and the perpetrators.