I, like many people, have a complicated relationship with true crime, even the classics of true crime. But in this overstimulating world, I can rely on true crime books, podcasts, and documentaries to truly capture my attention. I don’t think that’s a good thing, honestly, but it is true. Maybe it’s because I was raised on Unsolved Mysteries, during the Satanic Panic, with stranger danger allegedly at every turn. As with any of our weird proclivities, we can try to put them to use. I can try to choose true crime books that aren’t the ones reinforcing the typical narratives. You know, the ones that shine attention on the most telegenic victims or paint slapdash portraits of monsters using the most salacious details while leaving out elements that complicate the story. And let’s not forget about copaganda.
Instead, I try to choose books that will, while they have my rapt attention, educate me about issues or history I don’t know enough about. They help inform my ideas about justice, which I can take into my life outside of reading. Most of the books on this list, the classics of true crime, will do more than tell a ripping tale of evil deeds. Some I have to admit are classics simply because of the impact they’ve had on the culture, even if they may be feeding into some of those typical narratives I mentioned above. And you’ll note I didn’t include In Cold Blood. Influential as it is, I don’t think it’s quite true enough to be considered true crime. So let’s investigate what made the cut.
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
It’s quite undeniable that Helter Skelter is one of the definitive true crime classics. The story does play into the most typical crime narratives, namely the murder of a beautiful and vulnerale white woman like Sharon Tate. But Bugliosi was Charles Manson’s prosecuting attorney. So the story does not aim to be salacious; it aims to be as meticulously detailed as the legal case that put Manson in prison. And if you’re interested in a rebuttal, try Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.
Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman by Rudy Wiebe and Yvonne Johnson
If you’re looking to understand the long-lasting effects of settler treatment of Indigenous Candians, this true crime classic will make the need for restitution crystal clear. It’s a gut punch of a book about what happens to someone subjected to lifelong violence. Yvonne Johnson’s story was published shortly after she was released from prison for murder. She bravely shares the story of her experiences with child abuse, and she connects that trauma to her participation in the murder (she was not the sole actor). While the details of the book can be very difficult to read, it is ultimately a personal story of redemption.
Columbine by Dave Cullen
Until we can make some real change, school shootings will remain a sickening fact of life in contemporary America. The Columbine shooting was one of the first to draw intense national debate and scrutiny. Maybe you only know the story from vaguely absorbing the news at the time. Or maybe the story is before your time. Either way, you probably lack a lot of the facts. Dave Cullen’s account of the tragedy is both incredibly thorough and eminently readable.
Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado
What’s interesting about this true crime classic about Mexican drug cartels is that it blends true crime reportage with the author’s own life story as a Mexican American. The book situates the reader within the history of the region that has given rise to the cartels. It also follows the author as he investigates whether his work as a journalist has indeed placed him on a hit list. The story is threaded through with an optimism of how Mexico could prevail over its current circumstances.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit law office dedicated to defending the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. This chronicle of EJI’s founding tells a variety of clients’ stories, including the wrongful conviction of Walter McMillian. His story illustrates so much of what is wrong with the justice system in America, especially capital punishment. Pair this book with The New Jim Crow. That way you’ll understand policies and structures in addition to the personal stories of Just Mercy.
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami is one of the most prominent living authors, period. When he turns his talents to a subject, you know you’ll get something singular. What’s most interesting about his take on the 1995 Tokyo Gas Attack perpetrated by five cult members is his urge to discover not how, but why. What in the collective psyche of Japanese people led to this event, and what were the after effects? In particular, he investigates the work ethic of Japanese people that made some vulnerable to the influence of the Aum Shinrikyo cult.
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
If you are interested in the ethics of true crime, this classic by the late journalist for The New Yorker is a must. It’s part of a trilogy, really, along with Fatal Vision and A Wilderness of Error. All three cover the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, convicted of murdering his family. This book delves into the relationship between a journalist and their subject, and the ethical pitfalls that exist when someone wants a story so badly they’re willing to lie to their subject.
Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 by Ida B. Wells-Barnett
If we’re going to talk about true crime classics, let’s get into the classics! Most people know Ida B. Wells as a pioneering journalist bringing attention to the horrors of lynching. But have you actually read her work? This book compiles three of her pamphlets, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, A Red Record, and Mob Rule in New Orleans. Read her fearless and persuasive writing to understand her position as one of the earliest leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial by Rabia Chaudry
The Serial podcast truly changed the landscape of true crime. The podcast, whose investigation into the murder of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of Adnan Syed unfolded more or less in real time. It became appointment listening and water cooler chat fodder. The podcast lacked resolution ultimately and then moved on to other stories. Rabia Chaudry, Adnan’s sister, believes in his innocence and continued to advocate for him long after the podcast season ended. This book fills in more details about the case and shares writing from Adnan himself.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
Some of my favorite true crime books are books investigating historical crimes. Honestly, they are a great way to learn history, because there is the crime to hook you but all the context builds general knowledge. This story of the serial killer at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair is expansive, covering architecture, the ferris wheel, alternating current electricity, and so much more.
If you choose to read this true crime classic, be sure to also read the aforementioned The Journalist and the Murderer. Ann Rule is undoubtedly one of the biggest names in true crime. She got her start writing this biography of serial killer Ted Bundy, whom she personally knew. This coincidence certainly made her career, and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide how much Bundy manipulated her and vice versa.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
This memoir is simply captivating and unforgettable. When the story of Miller’s sexual assault first came out, before her name was public, it was all too easy to make assumptions about her. And people did. Her bravery to tell her story is admirable on its own, but the artistry of her story is remarkable. It feels like an honor to bear witness to her truth, told with such clear eyes and incredible grace.
If you’re ready to go beyond true crime classics, we definitely have more recommendations for you. How about books that expose the failings of true crime? I also recommend checking out international true crime and books about missing and murdered people of color. Take good care of yourself while reading these tough books, and stay safe out there.