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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in true crime—or at least, true-ish crime. “Law & Order: SVU” was my gateway, straight to a front-to-back read of Helter Skelter over the course of a single day … and now here I am, several years later, not at all the creepy, basement-lurking individual that comes to mind when you think of a true crime aficionado. You never know!
What often makes true crime compelling is how it blends these tales of human horrors with at times equally terrifying accounts of the criminal justice system. The masses got in on it, too, when we all got hooked on Serial. It’s not just murders we want to hear about—it’s how things panned after that, and who was punished, and what it took for justice to finally be served. If it had been served at all, that is.
So if you need something to do with yourself for the next couple of days, and have pored over every Reddit thread about Serial and are already well-acquainted with In Cold Blood, I recommend these five popular true crime books should you have missed out on them. I don’t want to sound too enthusiastic about the subject, but they’re enjoyable reads that will keep your mind off your inevitable return to real life.
I didn’t truly understand what it meant for a story to be “gripping” before I read A Violent Act. Published in 1993, this book—which is just over 220 pages and reads so much like incredibly masterful, well-written fiction that I found myself checking the front jacket more than once to confirm that it was, indeed, non-fiction—documents the 1986 murder of a probation officer by an ex-convict and the subsequent crime spree as the murderer terrorizes a small Indiana town over the course of an 11-day manhunt. The story behind it is worth reading, but the way this particular depiction is written even more so. It’s chilling, fascinating, and a relatively quick read you can knock out in a few solid hours.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
This 2004 bestseller has been in the news recently: It was announced back in August that Martin Scorsese would direct the film adaptation, with Leonardo DiCaprio as his leading man. That said, you could wait for a few years to watch DiCaprio play serial killer H. H. Holmes on the big screen, or you can delve into Larson’s skillfully written, layered take on the crimes and corruption surrounding the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. This story is truly compelling, not just for its coverage of Holmes but also for the backdrop of the construction of the World’s Fair and Daniel H. Burnham, the brilliant, capable architect responsible for the fair’s construction.
True Story the film hardly does True Story the memoir any justice, so skip the DVD and snag the book instead. In early 2002, New York Times Magazine writer Michael Finkel has just been fired from his dream job. The day before the Times is set to announce their employee’s fall from grace in a public statement, Finkel is informed that a man named Christian Longo, wanted for the murder of his wife and three young children, has stolen his identity. The story that follows, as told by Finkel, is smart, darkly funny, and eminently well-written—exactly as you might expect from a former New York Times contributor.
Again: skip the “major motion picture” starring Johnny Depp, reach for the paperback. It’s made all the more intriguing by the fact that the title character, notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, isn’t just alive, but was only recently arrested in 2011 at the age of 81 after spending 16 years in hiding—and 12 of those years on the FBI’s list of the ten most-wanted fugitives. Originally penned in 2001, this saga by two Boston Globe reporters is certainly a saga at 448 pages, but it’ll keep you glued to your seat until the very last word. Then you can decide if you want to see the movie or not.
This one was made into a movie you’ve probably already seen—the film, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, was hard to miss—but regardless of whether or not you’re a fan, the book should absolutely not be missed. It’s been called “a lyrical work of nonfiction,” and for very, very good reason: The prose and the eccentric, standout characters both go down like the products of an extraordinarily creative mind rather than a true, gritty tale that then-Esquire columnist Berendt actually experienced. It’s colorful, entertaining, and a pleasure to read, though the subject matter itself may not always be all that pleasant.