Explore the best true crime books: terrifying serial killer stories, enrapturing memoirs of investigators, and fascinating but not scary true crime books.
What is it about true crime books that is so addicting?
The best true crime books completely capture your attention. The story fascinates the imagination, with a sequence of events that seems straight out of a novel.
There is something about us that is curious about the darkest parts of humanity. We seek out true story crime books to try to understand horrifying events that are so foreign to our own sensibilities, or so we hope.
For you, I’ve collected together the best true crime books to read. From the new true crime books hitting the shelves to the best true crime books of all time, here are all the stories that people will be talking about for years to come.
If you aren’t a fan of serial killers and atrocious murders, don’t worry. I’ve also included some of my favorite true crime books that aren’t scary, including an international art thief and an arson at a public library.
The Best True Crime Books
Truman Capote was the founder of narrative nonfiction with his page-turning look at an unspeakable crime. On November 15, 1959, in the small farming town of Holcomb, Kansas, two men brutally murder the Clutter family in their home for no apparent reason. Through extensive interviews from the first days on the scene and following the events all the way to the execution of the murderers, Capote suspensefully unfolds the whole story of exactly what happened and more intriguing of all, why it happened.
After discovering oil on their land, the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma was among the richest people in the world at the time. Once the death toll surpasses 24 Osage, the newly created FBI takes up the investigation to expose an alarming conspiracy behind these notorious crimes. Considered one of the best true crime books of recent years, Killers of the Flower Moon is finally getting a movie adaptation.
Michelle McNamara’s hunt for a serial killer epitomized the fascination with true crime narrative nonfiction. For over a decade, a violent serial rapist plagued Northern California and then went on to commit 10 sadistic murders, never to be caught. Thirty years later, journalist Michelle McNamara took on the cold case, obsessively determined to find the Golden State Killer. Posthumously published two years after her death, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is McNamara’s masterpiece of her search for the truth. Even more fascinating, only two months after this book was published, a suspect was formally charged with the murders.
Imagine a Silicon Valley startup that raised insane amounts of money all based on a gigantic fraud. It sounds like a fictional thriller, but it is the actual true story of the company Theranos. Investigative journalist John Carreyrou’s exposé of Elizabeth Holmes’s company is an eye-opening read and one of the best true crime books of recent years.
A master of narrative nonfiction, Erik Larson turns his attention to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago in this stunning true crime book. Larson expertly interweaves two parallel storylines. The first is that of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect and mastermind of the fair. At the same time in Chicago, there lurked the serial killer Henry H. Holmes, a pharmacist intent on building his own type of fairgrounds – a torture chamber full of every imaginable horror. By contrasting the lives of these two figures, Larson presents a startling juxtaposition of American history.
Serial Killer Books
As a prosecutor in the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi has a unique insight into one of the most horrifying crimes of the century. Bugliosi reveals the terrifying details of the Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by Charles Manson and four of his followers. Even more intriguing, Bugliosi delves into how Manson selected his seemingly random victims and how he held so much control of young women.
Casey Cep looks at a fascinating true crime story from the 1970s, where Reverend Willie Maxwell was accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money, a case that Harper Lee spent years investigating in hopes of turning it into a book. Although the state tried to prosecute him, Maxwell was acquitted with the help of his savvy lawyer Tom Radney. Then, at the funeral of Maxwell’s niece whom he is assumed to have killed, a man shot Maxwell in cold blood and is acquitted of that murder with the help of the same Tom Radney.
In 1888, five women were viciously murdered by the infamous Jack the Ripper. While many true crime books focus on the perpetrator, The Five takes a deeper look at the victims. Historian Hallie Rubenhold’s research refutes the common belief that they were prostitutes. Rubenhold takes on Victorian England and explains that these five women were all in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the spring of 2010, Shannan Gilbert ran screaming through Oak Beach, Long Island, and then disappeared. The police didn’t put much effort into finding the missing 24-year-old who had worked as an escort on Craiglist, until seven months later when four bodies were found on Gilgo Beach in Long Island, all with a similar profile to Shannan. Kolker explores this unsolved mystery, exploring the shadowy world of online escorts and the underside of the internet.
Investigative reporter Charles Graeber spent ten years composing this true crime book about America’s most prolific serial killer. Over 16 years and in 9 hospitals, registered nurse Charlie Cullen, a beloved father and celebrated caregiver, took the lives of hundreds of patients. Graeber gives a complicated portrait of the “Angel of Death” and the events that led to his unmasking.
Must Read True Crime Books
With meticulous in-depth research, Dave Cullen examines the mass shooting that forever changed America. In a day and age where shootings are sadly becoming the norm instead of the exception, Cullen takes you back to that fateful day in 1999. On that tragic day, Cullen was one of the first reporters on the scene and has since spent years piecing together the full story of what happened at Columbine High School.
Timothy B. Tyson
In 1955, Emmett Till was a fourteen-year-old Black boy from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi. Accused of offending a white woman, Emmett was tortured and lynched by two white men who were acquitted at trial of Till’s murder. The most notorious hate crime in America’s history, Till’s death sparked outrage and was a rallying point for the Civil Rights movement. Part true crime book and part history, The Blood of Emmett Till examines the life of Emmett Till and how race has influenced America’s democratic institutions.
In 1984, Ron and Dan Lafferty walked into their younger brother’s house and their sister-in-law Brenda and her 14-month-old daughter in cold blood. For their entire lives, neither expressed guilt for their crime because God had told them to do it. Jon Krakauer takes you into the world of Mormon fundamentalists, radical break-offs of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In between showcasing various fundamentalist groups, Krakauer explains the early teachings of the church that such people take to the extreme to justify polygamy and violence in the name of God.
Patrick Radden Keefe
In one of the best nonfiction books of recent years, Patrick Radden shines with a brilliant piece of investigative reporting chronicling the life of three generations of the Sackler family. One of the richest families in the world, their name adorns some of the most storied institutions. Yet, the source of their wealth has long remained hidden: the making and marketing of OxyContin, the painkiller that sparked the current opioid crisis.
True Crime Memoirs
In this stunning autobiographical story, Ann Rule gives an intimate look at Ted Bundy, one of America’s most prolific serial killers. While working at a crisis hotline in Seattle, former law enforcement officer Ann Rule meets Ted Bundy. For two years, the two coworkers developed a close friendship at work. The next year, after Bundy had left the crisis hotline, a sketch of the serial killer plaguing Seattle appeared in the paper, and Rule called in the tip for Bundy, still not believing him capable of murder. As Bundy moves to Salt Lake and is under further investigation, Rule keeps in touch, eventually understanding that she was horribly wrong about Bundy.
As a young idealistic lawyer, Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice defending the most desperate of clients. Over the years, he helped the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women with nowhere else to turn. One case, in particular, stands out: Walter McMillian, a young man on death row who insists he is innocent, and very well may be. Stevenson inspires his readers to consider how compassion is needed for true justice to be served.
In 1958, Jean Ellroy was raped and killed in a rundown L.A. suburb, leaving behind her ten-year-old son James. Traumatized by his mother’s murder, James became obsessed with murdered women and crime, eventually becoming a fiction writer known for his novels The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. Teaming up with brilliant homicide detective Bill Stoner, Ellroy reinvestigates his mother’s murder.
In 1981, a death at the grandest mansion in Savannah provokes the question: Was it murder or self-defense? The shooting sends a tidal wave through the town whose effects are still visible a decade later. With a colorful cast of characters, you’ll hardly believe this true crime story isn’t a novel.
Lara Love Hardin
In a stunning memoir, Lara Love Hardin writes of her unexpected life and her hard journey toward redemption. Suburban soccer mom Lara Love Hardin was the last person you’d expect to be arrested, but she was secretly funding her heroin addiction by stealing her neighbor’s credit cards. Using her PTA skills, Love Hardin quickly rises in the prison ranks. After being released, she manages to establish herself as a successful ghostwriter. Yet, the shame and guilt are harder to let go of, forcing her to figure out a way to forgive herself.
True Crime Books to Read That Aren’t Scary
For over a decade, Stéphane Breitwieser plagued the art world, carrying out over two hundred heists in museums and cathedrals throughout the world. Using his girlfriend as a lookout, Breitwieser used his incredible athleticism and ability to crack surveillance systems to pull off spectacularly audacious thefts. But not for money. Breitwieser kept all his stolen goods in a single room for him to admire at his leisure. Yet, as Breitwieser’s heists grew bolder and bolder he eventually pushed too far and his operation came tumbling down.
In 1986, a massive fire raced through the Los Angeles Public Library Central Branch, raging for over seven hours and destroying hundreds of thousands of books. Susan Orlean weaves together the tale of the library fire, the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, and the behind-the-scenes look at the current library to show the importance of libraries to humanity.
Rachel DeLoache Williams
When Rachel DeLoache Williams met Anna Delvey, she was completely charmed by the German heiress’s worldliness and ambition. Anna was extremely generous, always picking up the tab when they were out in Manhattan. Of course, Rachel jumped at the opportunity when Anna proposed an all-expenses-paid vacation to Marrakech. Until Anna’s credit cards stopped working and Rachel had to front Anna the money. Yet, when they returned to New York, Anna’s promised repayment never happened. Instead, Rachel realized she wasn’t Anna’s first victim and unexpectedly found herself a prime witness against one of New York City’s most notorious con artists.
Poison is one of the most popular methods chosen in murder mysteries, but how do they work? Bradbury blends science, history, and true crime with an exploration of eleven deadly poisons, how they affect the body, and which infamous killers have used them.
Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark
You probably have heard their voices on the hit true crime podcast, My Favorite Murder. In their memoir, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstack discuss their lives and the formative events that shaped them – from eating disorders to depression, their fears to their biggest mistakes. While discussing their pasts and true crime stories, the pair frankly also comment on further cultural and societal issues.
True Story Crime Books About Investigators
Paul Holes has spent his lifetime hunting out evil as he investigated cold cases for the Contra Costa County’s Sherriff department. Known for his contributions in capturing the Golden State Killer, Holes contemplates his life’s work. He’s proud of the work he has done, piecing together puzzles and bringing truth to light. But at what cost? Unmasked is a searing introspective look at how the traits that made him an excellent investigator negatively impacted his personal relationships.
John Douglas & Mark Olshaker
During his twenty-five-year career with the FBI, John Douglas worked in the Behavioral Science Unit, pursuing the worst serial killers of the time. Having interviewed such famous individuals as Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Ed Gein, Douglas gives an insight into what it takes to understand and capture these individuals. Part memoir about his opinions about law and justice and part case study, Douglas reviews several famous crimes, covering the evidence, the profile, and the search for the killers.
If you like chilling true crime books about the 1930s, Daniel Stashower’s latest book is just what you need. In 1934, a day at the beach turned gruesome when beachgoers discovered the lower half of a woman’s body. The first of a dozen victims, for four years Cleveland was gripped in terror by a serial killer who butchered and dismembered his victims. Stashower’s account details the horror of the city and the determination of Eliot Ness to capture the killer.
Working a summer job at a Louisiana law firm, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich helps defend men accused of murder. The child of two lawyers, they have always been staunchly anti-death penalty. Until they are placed on Ricky Langley’s case and find themselves wanting him to die. Examing Ricky’s case, they are forced to reckon with their own history and they find that they are not the only one who saw their life reflected in Ricky’s.
More True Crime Books
In 1899, two young African-American boys were kidnapped from their tobacco farm in Truevine, Virginia, and forced into a life as “circus freaks.” Even though their careers turned out successfully, were the boys’ lives better off as world-famous stars or would their lives have been better having been raised in poverty with their family? If you want a thought-provoking story on your true crime books reading list, Beth Macy’s investigation into difficult questions raises pertinent aspects of race relations today.
John Bloom and Jim Atkinson
In 1984, Candy and Betty were friendly Texas neighbors, singing together in the Methodist choir. Their daughters were even best friends. But when Betty discovered Candy’s affair with her husband, a confrontation led to Candy killing Betty with an axe – a crime for which she was ultimately found not guilty of murder. The true crime story of Candy Montgomery and Betty Gore has gained some major attention lately, with a miniseries from Hulu, Candy, in 2022 and a new HBO Max adaptation, Love and Death, in 2023.
While studying at Harvard, Becky Cooper first hears the story of a female student who was murdered forty years earlier. Rumors say she had an affair with a professor and was killed when she threatened to expose him. Cooper finds the story is completely distorted. At the height of counterculture in 1969, as Harvard is set to merge with Radcliffe, its female sister school, the ambitious daughter of a Radcliffe Vice President is murdered in her apartment. Diving down the rabbit hole, Cooper spends ten years researching the crime, discovering a complex story of gender inequality, institutional power, and the need to rewrite the stories of female victims.
James St. James
Originally published as Disco Bloodbath, Party Monster is the story of the New York City’s Club Kids, a group of dance club personalities that led hedonistic lives in the city in the late 80s and early 90s. James St. James gives a firsthand account of the group’s party life and Michael Alig’s rise to fame and Alig’s eventual murder and dismemberment of a purported drug dealer named Angel.
Missoula, Montana, is a typical college town, home to a well-respected state university with a loyal fan base of their football team. Between 2008 and 2012, Missoula police received 350 sexual assault reports and most were poorly handled by the police and the university. Telling the stories of several different women from Missoula, Jon Krakauer highlights why rape is so prominent at American college campuses and why victims are so reluctant to come forward.
Are You a Fan of True Crime Books?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my True Crimes Books list? What do you think are the best true crime books of all time? As always, let me know in the comments!
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