Required Reading: True Crime Classics

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Last week we heard that George Clooney had signed on to play the author and crime-hunting hero of The Monster of Florence in a film adaptation. Written by Italian reporter Mario Spezi and thriller author Douglas Preston, the nonfiction bestseller is a gripping account of their investigation into the unsolved murders of 16 young couples between 1968 and 1985. It’s a shining example of the true crime genre, which, as Joyce Carol Oates once noted in an article about the media flurry encircling the JonBenet Ramsey murder, “mirror[s] our collective anxiety about the very definition of justice, let alone its realization.” Straddling cutting edge journalism and edge-of-your-seat mystery, these ten true crime classics satiate that collective anxiety by balancing heady social scrutiny with fast-paced entertainment.

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood marks the birth of the narrative-driven nonfiction genre. A decided departure from his earlier books like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote’s account of a quadruple family homicide in Kansas is a bleak but fascinating case study of criminal psychology as he gets immersed in the minds of the murderers themselves.

Under the Banner of Heaven

Jon Krakauer’s studies of social outliers have brought him from Mt. Everest to the Alaskan wilderness, but Under the Banner of Heaven brings him into a world of spiritual conviction that is far more shadowy and sinister. The book chronicles the violent death of a young Mormon woman and her infant daughter at the hands of her brothers-in-law, who believed their crime to be the will of God, but Krakauer also probes the moorings of fundamentalist religious belief in America.

The Devil in the White City

Set against the backdrop of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and featuring both a talented architect and a doctor-masquerading mass murderer as its alternating protagonists, The Devil in the White City has the makings of a historical thriller. Like Simon Winchester’s similar The Professor and the Madman, every detail in Erik Larson’s impeccably researched popular history evokes a surely-this-is-made-up incredulity, which ultimately makes this book’s factuality all the more absorbing.

The Executioner’s Song

Borrowing heavily from the “nonfiction novel” format forged by Capote, Norman Mailer’s “true life novel” The Executioner’s Song delves into the mind of another notorious murderer. With subject Gary Gilmore’s self-demanded death sentence — the first capital punishment case after its reinstitution in 1977 — looming large throughout the book, Mailer brilliantly delves into the life story of this disarmingly introspective killer.

All the President’s Men

A seminal work of journalistic power, All the President’s Men earned its authors a Pulitzer Prize — as well as an early retirement for then-president Nixon. Chronicling the events and conspiratorial underpinnings of the Watergate scandal, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s engrossing saga forever changed the face of investigative journalism, while also exposing the darkest sides of politics.

Columbine

Although the Columbine school shooting remains a touchstone for cultural questions about teen violence and bullying, it has also been mired in oversaturated media scrutiny. Columbine, journalist Dave Cullen’s incisive account of the 1999 killings, analyzes the lives and psychopathology of the shooters themselves as well as the misinformed media myth-making that followed the tragedy.

Helter Skelter

The horror of the Manson Family murders lingers in our cultural consciousness for both its brutality and bizarreness. In Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor at Charles Manson’s trial, examines the genesis, social circumstances, pop culture influences, and aftermath of the murder case that rocked mid-century Hollywood to its core.

The Stranger Beside Me

Chronicling the life and trial of Ted Bundy, an astonishingly prolific serial killer who was executed in 1989, The Stranger Beside Me‘s intimate perspective on its subject is drawn from author Ann Rule’s friendship with Bundy, which dates back to a shared night shift job at a Seattle suicide hotline years before his arrest. Rule, a longtime crime writer by profession, delivers a personal account that is complemented by her knowledge of the genre’s essential principles.

The Road Out of Hell

Setting the groundwork for all subsequent rural-phobic horror stories, the Wineville murders consisted of the kidnapping and gruesome killing of at least 20 people at a remote chicken farm outside LA in the ‘20s. But while the sensational trial and execution of Gordon Stewart Northcott captured national attention at the time, Anthony Flacco’s account, The Road Out of Hell, spotlights the case-clinching testimonies of Northcott’s nephew and forced accomplice, Sanford Clark.

Blood and Money

With enough twists, turns, and family secrets to suit a daytime soap opera, Blood and Money is the novelistic account of a chain of murders set off by the mysterious death of an oil millionaire’s daughter in 1969. Author Thomas Thompson handles the cast of characters — including glamorous socialites, medical experts, oil tycoons, and plastic surgeons — who people this bizarre saga with the narrative ease of a novelist.