The True Crime genre is definitely having a bit of a moment not just in print, but also on television and in other forms of media. This recent increase in interest in the genre was initially accelerated by the sudden popularity of podcast Serial, which covered the story of the murder conviction of Muslim teenager Adnan Syed in its first season of episodes released in 2014. After that came Netflix’s original documentary series Making A Murder, which followed the apparent wrongful conviction of Steven Avery, and later the production of broadcast television series American Crime Story, which reenacted perhaps the most famous trial in U.S. history – that of O.J. Simpson.
Though these recent productions definitely incited further interest in True Crime, the reality is that human’s have always had a more or less morbid interest in real stories of crimes – and often the more gruesome or complex the better. There is something voyeuristic about people’s interest in the genre of course – most people (luckily) will never be involved in serious crimes like those which the genre encompasses, and it’s these extremes in human experience that typically draw a lot of attention from average citizens leading average lives. I’m among those interested in True Crime partly for the thrill of reading about events that are so far from my personal life experience, but I also have an intellectual interest in the criminal proceedings that are often discussed in True Crime titles. I like to put myself in the place of the detectives investigating the crimes, or the attorneys prosecuting a case or defending a suspect.I would recommend most of the eight titles I reviewed in this post (American Heiress would be the exception since it was way too detailed to be interesting), but I think a great entry point to the genre would either be Helter Skelter from a historic perspective, or Amanda Knox‘s memoir for a more recent story.
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi held a unique insider’s position in one of the most baffling and horrifying cases of the twentieth century: the cold-blooded Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by Charles Manson and four of his followers. What motivated Manson in his seemingly mindless selection of victims, and what was his hold over the young women who obeyed his orders? Here is the gripping story of this famous and haunting crime.
If you ever only read one True Crime book, make it Helter Skelter. Despite being published in the 70s, this classic of criminal writing still has significant current appeal. The author, Vincent Bugliosi, had a front row seat to the trial of Charles Manson and his accomplices because he was the prosecutor who tried their case. He became intimately knowledgeable of each of the different personalities that made up the family, as well as of the physical evidence racked up against them from the several gruesome crime scenes and 9 victims they left in their wake. Through Bugliosi’s lucid writing in this account of the trial and conviction of Manson and his followers, you’ll have a front row seat of the proceedings, with an expert guide to take you through every aspect of the case against The Family. I found Helter Skelter to be scarier than the more journalistic version of the story told by Jeff Guinn in Manson. That may have been in part because Helter Skelter was my first impact with the Manson story. Growing up in Italy, it definitely didn’t have the cult importance that it has in the United States. Still, Helter Skelter had that effect on me of wanting to continue reading while also wanting to stop so I wouldn’t stay up frightened for my life at night. You know that’s the mark of a successful True Crime book.
Manson by Jeff Guinn
Published: August 6th 2013
Based on new interviews with previously undiscovered relatives and filled with revelations and unpublished photographs, this is the most authoritative account of the life of Charles Manson. Guinn interviewed Manson’s sister and cousin, neither of whom had ever previously cooperated with an author. Childhood friends, cellmates, and even some members of the Manson Family have provided new information about Manson’s life. Manson puts the killer in the context of his times, the turbulent late sixties, an era of race riots and street protests when authority in all its forms was under siege. In addition to stunning revelations about Charles Manson, the book contains family photographs never before published.
I just finished reading Jeff Guinn’s Manson and I think it makes a terrific companion read to Helter Skelter for those really interested in an in-depth look at the life of Charles Manson and the Manson murders. While Helter Skelter is the passionate account of the murders and of their perpetrators from the subjective point of view of the prosecuting attorney, Manson is the dispassionate and journalistic account of the story. Helter Skelter also predominantly focuses on the time-span between the nights of the murders and the end of the trial, while Manson extends on one side to encompass Charles Manson’s childhood and youth and on the other past the trial, into its repercussions for the convicted members of Charles Manson’s “Family”. Manson does not stray into the dryness of Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress, despite covering an equally complex array of details about life in the “Family” and also putting Charles Manson’s philosophies in context within the ideological trends of the time. Overall, Manson is an exhaustive, expertly written and engaging account of one of the most notorious murder trials in U.S. history.
Bloodsworth by Tim Junkin
Published: October 9th 2004
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Charged with the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl in 1984, Kirk Bloodsworth was tried, convicted, and sentenced to die in Maryland’s gas chamber. From the beginning, he proclaimed his innocence, but when he was granted a new trial because his prosecutors improperly withheld evidence, the second trial also resulted in conviction. After nine years in one of the harshest prisons in America, Kirk Bloodsworth was vindicated by DNA evidence. He was pardoned by the governor of Maryland and has gone on to become a tireless spokesman against capital punishment.
This is definitely not an easy book to read. The story itself is gut-wrenching and infuriating. An innocent man imprisoned for years until the advent of modern DNA technology is able to exonerate him. There are many like him whose story is never told, or who even suffer the ultimate punishment through the death penalty, only to be exonerated posthumously when additional evidence becomes available. The writing in this recounting of Bloodsworth’s conviction and eventual acquittal is clear and concise while conveying the varying ranges of emotion experienced by him and his attorneys as they seek to prove his innocence. The author goes into detail about the conditions of life in prison that Bloodsworth was subjected to, and the trial that preceded his conviction. What’s most incredible is that there were several eyewitnesses that placed Kirk Bloodsworth with the nine year-old girl he was accused of raping, but clearly their recollections were proved to be several misguided. The book reads like condemnation of the criminal justice system, the media and public opinion, all of whom had a part in allowing an innocent man to be convicted not once, but twice, for something he didn’t do.
People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry
Published: March 7th 2011
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Lucie Blackman – tall, blonde, and 21 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, an award-winning foreign correspondent, has followed the case since Lucie’s disappearance. People Who Eat Darkness is, by turns, a non-fiction thriller, a courtroom drama and the biography of both a victim and a killer.
People Who Eat Darkness was a book I recommended to the LA-based book club I’m part of sometime last year. I thought that the fact that it was a True Crime title that had a cultural component to it and involved a foreign criminal justice system would make it interesting to my pretty intellectual book club, and I was right. We had an animated discussion about the book, mainly due to the style in which it was written. Though the author, Richard Lloyd Parry, is a journalist, I felt several parts of his characterization of the story, including his opinions of the victim’s family, came off as heavily biased. Rather than steer on the side of giving a completely objective journalistic account of Lucy’s murder, the recovery of her body and the ensuing trial, Lloyd Parry revels in seedy descriptions of Japanese nightlife and unforgiving criticisms of Lucy’s family members. I have to say that this didn’t make the book a bad read, however, hence the 3 rabbit review. It was a gruesome crime story with a significant emotional component, further complicated by the realities of an unfamiliar court system.
Waiting To Be Heard by Amanda Knox
Published: April 1st 2013
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
In the fall of 2007, twenty-year old college coed Amanda Knox left Seattle to study abroad in Perugia, Italy for one year. But that November 1, her life was shattered when her roommate, British student Meredith Kercher, was murdered in their apartment. Five days later, Amanda was taken into custody and charged by the Italian police; her arrest and the subsequent investigation ignited an international media firestorm. Two years later, after an extremely controversial trial, Amanda was convicted and imprisoned. But in 2011 an appeals court overturned her conviction and vacated the charges. This is her personal account of her story.
I may have mentioned this one or two or twenty times before on this blog, but I’m Italian, born and raised. I have no qualms in saying, however, that the Italian police and justice system are embarrassingly ineffectual. Like everyone else around the world, I followed Amanda Knox’s story through her years of imprisonment, and I was convinced of her innocence even before reading this memoir or watching the very well-made documentary about her story on Netflix. Though I already knew some of the details of Meredith Kercher’s murder and Amanda’s subsequent odyssey in the Italian court system, this memoir was an absolutely amazing read. The reader gets to know Amanda through her own words, as she reflects on the ways in which her own reactions after Meredith’s murder and during the investigation and trial may have worsened her chances of acquittal. Amanda is uncompromising with herself, but you also learn about how she kept her spirits up and remained motivated to fight for her freedom during her years in confinement. It was moving, super-informational about Italian prisons (I topic I actually knew little about), and also eye-opening when it comes to the facts of this important modern criminal case.
Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice And Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Published: October 21st 2014
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Stevenson into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
This title is a little different from the other books in this list. Though Just Mercy also primarily focuses on a specific case – that of purported murdered Walter McMillian – the book is a larger-scale look at the way in which the criminal justice system is rigged against the poor, uneducated and most vulnerable in our society. Reading about the injustices perpetrated on Walter and other typically young black men like him, I found myself becoming emotional. The author, Bryan Stevenson, is truly a hero for his work in aiding those who find themselves on Death Row without ever having access to effective legal representation. You can read more about his work on the Equal Justice Initiative’s website, which is the organization he founded dedicated to fighting against the racial and economic discrimination inherent in the U.S. criminal justice and incarceration system. Just Mercy was recommended by one of the participants in my LA-based book club who is a lawyer, and it should be required reading for anyone with a civil conscience, who wants to be aware of the legal injustices to which under-privileged American citizens are subjected to everyday.
American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin
Published: April 2nd 2016
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history. On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a senior in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre “Tania.” Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown.
Okay, let me start off by just laying it out there – American Heiress was a slog. I gave the book 2 rabbits instead of just one, because the story itself is an interesting one. Young, privileged, white, clueless heiress is kidnapped by poorly-organized purportedly revolutionary group, and decides to join their ranks. Patty Hearst’s story is compelling, especially because by the end of the book, I still felt ambivalent as to whether it could be argued that Patty was brainwashed during her time with her kidnappers, or whether she should have been considered culpable for the criminal activities she engaged in after joining the group of rebels. I don’t know if the book felt particularly long and dry because I listened to it on audiobook, but I think it would have been more successful if the author had not delved into quite such a high level of detail about every single minutiae of the story. For long periods of time, the SLA, the self-declared revolutionary group that kidnapped Patty, is in hiding and there isn’t much to report. But Toobin still slogs on, describing each of their new hideouts, dozens of near misses with police, and repetitive details about their ideology and lifestyle. I would say the book has a similar level of detail to Manson, but the majority of details are just less interesting ones. I would skip this one.
Adnan’s Story by Rabia Chaudry
Published: August 9th 2016
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
In early 2000, Adnan Syed was convicted and sentenced to life plus thirty years for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, a high school senior in Baltimore, Maryland. Syed has maintained his innocence, and Rabia Chaudry, a family friend, has always believed him. By 2013, after almost all appeals had been exhausted, Rabia contacted Sarah Koenig, a producer at This American Life, in hopes of finding a journalist who could shed light on Adnan’s story. In 2014, Koenig’s investigation turned into Serial, a Peabody Award-winning podcast with more than 500 million international listeners. But Serial did not tell the whole story. In this compelling narrative, Rabia Chaudry presents new key evidence that she maintains dismantles the State’s case.
I caught the Serial craze like everyone else when the podcast was released in 2014. The podcast was undeniably well done and it clearly pointed to Adnan having been wrongly convicted for his ex-girlfriend Hae’s murder. Rabia Chaudry was mentioned on the podcast as a lawyer and family friend who became increasingly involved in orchestrating Adnan’s defense, and in this book she reveals additional details about why she firmly believes that Adnan is innocent (as I do), and why she is fighting for him to be allowed to have a new trial. I found the most compelling parts of Chaudry’s book were the letters and conversations that are included that Adan had with her and others while in jail. Through these communications, Adnan comes across as a highly articulate, respectful, thoughtful and caring person – the portrait of a man, as his family and friends have consistently maintained, who could never murder anyone. Because the book is heavy on these primary sources, I would suggest reading it in print rather than on Kindle. On my Kindle, I found it hard to read through some of the images of the original letters sent by Adnan. I wish that the publisher had chosen to provide transcriptions of all of them, but they only did so for some. You should listen to Season 1 of Serial before picking up this book, but it’s an extremely interesting source of additional information for fans of the story.
Avery by Ken Kratz
Published: February 21st 2017
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
The Netflix series Making a Murderer quickly became a huge hit, with over 19 million viewers in the U.S. in the first 35 days. The series left many viewers with the opinion that Steven Avery—a man falsely imprisoned for almost 20 years on a rape charge—was railroaded into prison a second time by a corrupt police force and district attorney’s office. Viewers were outraged and hundreds of thousands demanded a pardon for Avery. The chief villain of the series was Ken Kratz, the special prosecutor who headed the investigation and prosecution. Kratz’s later misdeeds—prescription drug abuse and sexual harassment—cemented his guilt in the minds of the viewers. Making a Murderer raised convincing doubts about Avery’s guilt. But now, Ken Kratz tries to put those doubts to rest.
If you haven’t watched the Netflix documentary Making A Murder yet, I would definitely recommend it. Like ever. In Avery, the prosecutorial attorney on Steven Avery’s trial, Ken Kratz, attempts to argue against some of the allegations made during the documentary about Steven Avery being framed for Teresa Halbach’s murder. There’s something just naturally unlikable about Kratz, and it definitely comes through in both the documentary and his writing. I have to be honest though that his book did make me think twice about some of the aspects of the Making The Murder claims that were instrumental in convincing me of Steven Avery’s innocence. However, nothing anyone said or wrote could convince me to believe the confessions of Brendan Dassey, Steven Avery’s teenage nephew. He was a minor, clearly with some comprehension issues, who was ambushed by investigators and policemen without the presence of his parents or lawyer, and transparently coached through his confession statements by the people interrogating him. That alone is troubling enough when considering that Brendan’s confessions were instrumental in his and Steven’s convictions. If you’re a Making A Murderer fan like me, it may be interesting for you to read Ken Kratz’s account of the prosecutions side of the story, straight from his mouth.
Other True Crime Books I’m Planning To Read
Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John BerendtJohn Berendt
Published: January 13th 1994 Kindle Paperback Hardcover
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil takes two narrative strands–each worthy of its own book–and weaves them together to make a single fascinating tale. The first is author John Berendt’s loving depiction of the characters and rascals that prowled Savannah in the eight years it was his home-away-from-home. Then, on May 2, 1981, the book’s second story line commences, when Jim Williams, a wealthy antique dealer, kills his “friend” Danny Hansford. The book sketches four separate trials, during which the dark side of this genteel party town is well and truly plumbed.
The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson
Published: October 17th 2002 Kindle Paperback Hardcover
Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book’s categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.
Columbine by Dave Cullen
Published: March 1st 2009 Kindle Paperback Hardcover
What really happened April 20, 1999? Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene, and spent ten years on this book-widely recognized as the definitive account. With a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen, he draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world’s leading forensic psychologists, and the killers’ own words and drawings-several reproduced in a new appendix.
A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold
Published: February 15th 2016 Kindle Paperback Hardcover
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Over the course of minutes, they would kill twelve students and a teacher and wound twenty-four others before taking their own lives. For the last sixteen years, Sue Klebold, Dylan s mother, has lived with the indescribable grief and shame of that day. How could her child, the promising young man she had loved and raised, be responsible for such horror? In A Mother’s Reckoning she chronicles with unflinching honesty her journey as a mother trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible.
Newtown: An American Tragedy by Matthew Lysiak
Published: December 10th 2013 Kindle Paperback Hardcover
The world mourned the devastating shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. Here is the definitive journalistic account of Newtown, an essential examination of the facts—not only of that horrific day but the perfect storm of mental instability and obsession that preceded it. Drawn from previously undisclosed emails, police reports, and in-depth interviews, Newtown: An American Tragedy breaks through a miasma of misinformation to present the comprehensive story that must be told—today—if we are to prevent another American tragedy in the days to come.
Have you read any of these True Crime titles? What did you think? Are there any other books in the True Crime genre that you would recommend? Let me know in the comments.
This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository (free delivery worldwide). I received an advanced review copy of Avery through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.