Get to know the murderers, arsonists, smugglers, and thieves from history’s most chilling moments.
By Jessica Dukes
For decades, newspaper reporters and pamphleteers reported the sensational crimes of the day. But when In Cold Blood was published in 1966, it set a higher standard for the long-form, narrative true crime books that are so popular now. See why this book and the true-story thrillers that followed make it such a readable genre.
On the trail of a good story, Capote (and his friend, Harper Lee) traveled to Holcomb, Kansas to study the unsolved murder of the Clutter family. The result: a page-turning thriller that traces the police investigation and eventual capture of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, two men recently paroled from Kansas State Penitentiary. One year after Hickock and Smith’s execution, Capote published In Cold Blood—an overnight sensation and the second-best-selling true crime book of all time, second only to Helter Skelter.
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
Published in 1974, Bugliosi was a prosecutor in the 1970 trial against Charles Manson. The book takes readers inside the courtroom where Manson’s crimes are laid out in agonizing detail. The murder of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca as well as pregnant actress, Sharon Tate, shocked the country and established Manson as a real-life supervillain.
A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger
It’s the early 1960s, and the Boston Strangler is on the loose. In Junger’s hometown of Belmont, a man named Roy Smith is arrested, suspected of being the Strangler. On that very day, there’s a carpenter working at Junger’s house—Albert DeSalvo, who eventually confesses to being the real Boston Strangler. A Death in Belmont is the unbelievable story of how their three lives overlap.
The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale
In 1895, Robert Coombes, age 13, is arrested for stabbing his mother to death. He easily confesses but offers no motive, so he is found guilty, yet insane, and sent to England’s notorious Broadmoor asylum. Much like British citizens at the time, readers are forced to resolve their feelings about Robert’s crimes with the man he becomes after his release—a war hero and upstanding member of his community.
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson
Edwin Rist, obsessed with salmon fly-tying, couldn’t resist breaking into the British Museum of Natural History in 2009 and stealing its beautifully colored birds collected 150 years ago in the name of science. For a few years, he got away with his crime… at least, until Johnson decided to investigate. The result is The Feather Thief, the tale of a strangely exciting heist.
The Monster of Florence: A True Story by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi
Preston and his family move to Florence in 2000, but it isn’t the adventure they expect. When he meets Spezi, an investigative journalist, they set out to learn more about a local serial killer dubbed “The Monster of Florence,” even interviewing a man they think is the murderer. Their project goes horribly wrong when the police begin investigating them. Preston is thrown out of Italy, and Spezi is accused of being The Monster of Florence and thrown in prison! We don’t casually throw around the term “jaw-dropping,” but this story deserves it.
Smuggler’s Blues: A True Story of the Hippie Mafia by Richard Stratton
How did a buttoned-up college boy become one of the biggest drug smugglers in the country? Stratton shares the story of his incredible years spent smuggling weed and hashish around the world, rubbing elbows with everyone from David Bowie to Whitey Bulger, all while dodging a tireless DEA agent. It’s a fascinating look at both the war on drugs and a business that is gradually becoming decriminalized.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
Northern California in the 1970s and 80s was in the grip of a serial rapist turned serial killer. With more than 160 crimes to his credit, identifying the Golden State Killer proved to be an epic logistical puzzle, but one that Michelle McNamara devoted years of her life to solving. And then, a tragedy within a tragedy: McNamara died of an accidental overdose in 2016. Her hard work lived on, and in February 2018, I’ll Be Gone was published. By April, the Golden State Killer was arrested.
Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California by Frances Dinkelspiel
The 1800s saw vineyards that enslaved their workers and land owners murdered over partnerships that went sour. In 2005, four and a half million bottles of wine went up in smoke at a storage warehouse. Dinkelspiel takes the long view of the many crimes that took place in California’s wine country for the sake of a grape—something to think about with your next glass of California red.
My Mother, a Serial Killer by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans
Everyone in the town of Wilcannia (New South Wales, Australia) thinks Dulcie Baron is the perfect 1950s homemaker, baking scones and making tea for neighbors while raising her children alone, as a widow. What no one knows, until her daughter Hazel brings her to justice, is that Dulcie is a serial killer who has evaded police for decades after the murder of three men, including her husband. This is one family drama you won’t forget.
New York City high-society life was never a good fit for Grace Humiston, a lawyer-turned-detective who took the cases the police wouldn’t, in a time when women couldn’t vote. When Humiston accepted the case of missing teenager, Ruth Cruger, she found herself pitted against some of the most powerful men in the city as she methodically exposed a terrifying web of crimes and corruption. Today the question remains: What happened to Grace Humiston?
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Savannah, Georgia, is a small enough city that when a young man is murdered in a grand mansion in the middle of the night, there are plenty of people who have an opinion on how and why it happened, even ten years later. These are the voices Berendt captures in his blockbuster true-crime masterpiece as he rebuilds the life of the victim and his murderer, exposing the dark side of a sleepy, tight-knit town.