I started reading true crime when I was around 16. I’m 33 now, so you can imagine how “easy” it is to think up 10 best books out of hundreds.
Nevertheless, I get so many requests for book recommendations that I feel a list like this will be interesting to my readers, so let’s do this.
10. This is the Zodiac Speaking, by Michael Kelleher and David van Nuys. (2001 Praeger Publishing)
People who don’t read very much always think that in order to like a book, you have to agree with all of its claims. Of course, that’s not the case at all: a good book can build an entire case that you don’t agree with, but still be enjoyable and interesting to read. Such is the case with this book. While I think van Nuys and Kelleher occasionally read way too much into what amounts to fairly minimal evidence, This is the Zodiac Speaking is nevertheless a very interesting read.
Author Michael Kelleher sent psychology professor van Nuys the infamous Zodiac letters and asked him to analyze them, to paint a psychological portrait of the person who wrote them; van Nuys did not know that the letters had been written by the infamous California serial killer. This book has two “voices”: one is Michael Kelleher’s as he narrates the terrifying saga of the Zodiac crimes, and the other is that of Dr. van Nuys as he analyzes the psychopathic killer. At the end of the book both men take turns building a coherent profile of the Zodiac.
This is the Zodiac Speaking is extremely well written: Kelleher and van Nuys are clearly men who write for a living, and this makes the book easy to follow and suspenseful even to those with no prior knowledge of the case. As I mentioned earlier, the authors occasionally dip pretty deep into the pool of speculations and theories, but then again, maybe it’s time to start thinking outside the box – after all, regular police work and conventional profiling have not brought us any closer to the Zodiac’s true identity even after several decades.
Being that Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac is full of lies and intentional misreadings of information, I consider this book to still be the best and most reliable version of the Zodiac killer story.
9. The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi. (2008 Grand Central Publishing)
Ever since he spent time there as a kid, American author Douglas Preston had a dream of living in Florence. Once it became financially possibly after the success of his suspense books (written with co-author Lincoln Child), Preston and his family packed their bags and headed to their dream city for a new life.
The dream quickly got sour after Preston realized that a serial killer known as “Il Mostro di Firenze” (“The Monster of Florence”) had been active near the neighborhood where Preston now resided with his family. A writer to his core, Preston began to investigate, and ended up becoming a part of the twisted story himself. This book tells the story of the “Monster”, and of how Preston himself became entangled in the web of creepy weirdness that is the “Il Mostro” investigation.
The book is absolutely flawlessly written: Preston is a professional entertainer who has made a fortune writing suspense books that are easy to read on an airplane or during a commute to work. This shines through as a big perk in The Monster of Florence: the complicated events, spanning several decades and all the way through to the moment Preston goes to Florence, are woven together effortlessly, and the reader is treated to an entertaining, scary read.
The crazy story the book tells has an equally crazy ending: the Italian police tell Preston to get the hell out of Italy and never come back. Why? I’ll leave that to you to discover.
8. The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule. (1980 W.W. Norton & Company)
Ted Bundy is one of the most famous serial killers in history, and due to his very public life after being caught, it would be easy to assume that we know all there is to know about him. However, this assumption would be incorrect, as Ann Rule’s intimate portrait of the psychopathic killer proves.
Rule and Bundy actually worked together as volunteers at a suicide “hotline” where self-destructive people could call to get help with their problems, or at least an ear to listen to them. Throughout their time together first as co-workers, then as friends, Rule had no idea that Bundy was spending his free time brutally murdering women and burying their bodies in the woods of Washington state. Even after the handsome, well-mannered Bundy was arrested for his murders, Rule refused to believe the arrest was anything but a mistake. But as the court proceedings began, Bundy’s mask of sanity began to fall off, and Rule was left with a terrifying realization…
This book is often listed as number 1 in articles such as this one, where true crime classics are listed. No wonder. The thick book spans a long period of time, but is never boring. The characters are painted vividly as Rule gives a three-dimensional treatment to the people in her life, and throughout its length The Stranger Beside Me has a feel of lived life to it. Though she wonderfully weaves her own story into the work, the focus of the book is obviously Bundy, and Rule gives us a totally unique, insightful view of the performance Bundy gave to the world first as an up-and-coming young politician, then as the bogey man of America.
7. The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer, by Brian Masters. (1993 Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.)
That clichéd mantra about how “even the most devious serial killers are nevertheless not that different from the rest of us” might be true in 99 percent of cases, but Jeffrey Dahmer was the exception – he was categorically, tragically different from the rest of us in all ways.
This lead to a sad, lonely, terrifying life that Masters lays out in his book. Though he never tries to defend Dahmer as a “victim” (I would not have liked this book if he had), Masters attempts a deeper understanding of his subject than your average true crime author, and the resulting portrait he paints of Dahmer’s bizarre road from a painfully awkward young introvert to a serial killer is a journey into a nightmare.
In the final chapter, Masters bites a bit too deep into the apple. He attempts a kind of psychoanalytical approach to the Dahmer case, wherein he places the morbid plans Dahmer had of building a shrine to his victims to the forefront of his analysis, and tries to find a deeper level in Dahmer’s thinking by comparing Dahmer’s spooky shrine fantasies to the general concept of “the shrine” and its meanings to mankind throughout the centuries. This doesn’t work very well, in my opinion, but it doesn’t ruin the book either, thankfully.
6. Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi. (1974 W.W. Norton & Company)
This huge, very detailed book is nowhere near perfect, but it needs to be mentioned on a list like this. It is, after all, a very good book, perfect though it may not be.
Vincent Bugliosi was the prosecutor who put the Manson family behind bars after the hippie-cult-gone-mad murdered a group of people in California in the late 1960s. This book tells the story of the Manson family and its darkly charismatic leader, Charles Manson, as well as the story of how Bugliosi built his case against the cult in court.
Helter Skelter is a rare book in the sense that one can genuinely say it tells an entire story, not just a part of it: the book is rammed with details, and basically every aspect of the Manson story is told. This is a blessing in some parts, but a curse in others: Bugliosi has an ego, and he is very adamant about communicating every little detail of his experience in prosecuting “the Family”. While reading about the intricacies of a prosecutor’s work can be fascinating in some parts, overall I wish he had left some of the material to a memoir, or written two books: one about the Manson Family, one about his prosecution thereof.
Be that as it may, Helter Skelter is still worthy of its status as a classic, if for no other reason than for being the definitive book on one of the most shocking crimes of the 20th century.
5. To Steal Her Love, by Matti Joensuu. (2008 Arcadia Books)
Being a Finn, it would be a shame not to include a Finnish crime book. That would be an opportunity wasted for my readers as well, as there are indeed some Finnish books in this category worth reading, and some of them have even been translated into English.
Case in point: this book. Matti Joensuu was an actual homicide detective in the Helsinki Police Department. Throughout his career he investigated everything from stabbings to shootings to… God knows what else. Informed by his own experiences as a detective, he wrote a series of crime novels featuring a fictional detective named Timo Harjunpää. To Steal Her Love is widely considered the best in the series.
At this point, I need to make something clear: this book is fictional. So then, why am I including this on my list? Two reasons: one, it’s a very, very well written realistic book about the criminal underworld in Finland; and two, it’s based on an actual case, and probably says more about it than a non-fiction book ever could.
In the late 1980s several women in the city of Helsinki started having weird dreams. In those dreams they woke up to the feeling that someone was in their apartment, looking at them from the dark. Most of the women brushed these dreams aside as just that – dreams, the human imagination at work on a subconscious level.
But then one day, one woman started wondering if those weird dreams she’d been having lately may actually have been real… She started to investigate, and came to a creepy conclusion – someone had indeed been inside her apartment at night.
She contacted the police, who put out a notification to women in Helsinki to be careful. Suddenly, the police received dozens and dozens of calls from women who had had the same experiences.
This book was inspired by that case.
4. Bind, Torture, Kill, by Roy Wenzl et. al. (2008 Harper)
Dennis Rader (aka the “BTK Killer”) is, in my mind, the most evil, terrifying, twisted serial killer of the modern era. He murdered several people over a period spanning several decades in Wichita, Kansas; his victims included an entire family. As if murder wasn’t enough, he sexually abused the bodies of some of his victims.
This book tells the story of a shockingly evil man without glorifying his dark deeds in any way. Yes, it is possible.
The authors are reporters of The Wichita Eagle, the local newspaper in the area where Rader was active in his serial killing. They know the area and the city intimately, and paint a wonderfully vivid portrait of the community Rader terrorized as well as the detectives who worked tirelessly to catch him. Though Rader’s story is also told, obviously, the good people are the focus of Bind, Torture, Kill while Rader is painted deservedly as the villain. By the end of the book you’ll be rooting for the cops to bring a climax to the suspense and unmask the “BTK”.
Brilliantly written, with the pulse-pounding pace and feel of a thriller, this book is a monument to the people who stand between us and the serial killers of the world.
3. Killing Pablo, by Mark Bowden. (2001 Grove Press)
If an era can be said to have a personality, the 1980s were loud, boisterous, excess-driven and narcissistic. Everything had to be big and flashy, and even the friggin’ cops drove Ferraris on TV.
Though his story spans other decades too, in many ways the story of Pablo Escobar was “The Great Story of the Eighties”. He went from a humble background to controlling the biggest cocaine empire in the world. He also didn’t mind showing it and rubbing it in the faces of the authorities hellbent on capturing him: he lived in a huge mansion with exotic animals imported from other parts of the world, flew in a private plane, and owned the best of everything. To his credit it must be said that he used some of his wealth to do good, too: he built housing for hundreds of poor people in his native country of Colombia.
The government was essentially entirely in Pablo’s pocket, and he was untouchable for a long time. There were, however, “anti-Pablo” forces within the government, people who refused to accept that Colombia was just a haven for drug lords, and they put together a concentrated effort to get Pablo extradited to the US to be tried for his drug-related crimes and murders. Once he heard of this, Pablo began waging a war against the government, and it got very ugly very fast: civilians were bombed, a plane was destroyed in mid-air, etc.
A kind of uneasy peace pact was ultimately reached, and Pablo was ordered to serve a prison sentence. Pablo yielded, as long as he didn’t have to be extradited – the drug lord once told his minions: “rather a grave in Colombia than a prison cell in the United States”. The only catch was, Pablo demanded that he get to build his own prison, to which the (pathetic) government of Colombia agreed.
When Pablo escaped from his own prison (if you can call it “escape”..) the Colombian officials had finally had enough. Pablo had made Colombia a laughing stock in the international community.
The negotiations were over. It was time for “el Patron” to die.
This book tells the story of the men and women who brought Escobar down. They risked their own lives (and the lives of their families – Pablo didn’t give a s*it who he killed) to fight corruption and drug crime in their country.
History comes alive on the pages of Killing Pablo as Bowden narrates the story with incredible intensity, creating suspense and excitement. I challenge you to put this book down after 20 pages.
2. The Damage Done, by Warren Fellows. (1997 Pan Macmillan Australia)
Australian Warren Fellows was involved in drug trafficking in the 1970s. After one of the operations he was involved in went sour, he ended up in a hellish prison in Bangkok, Thailand. This book tells the story of his imprisonment and his release.
Fellows is no Dostoyevsky, but rather than being a hindrance, that ends up serving the story: the narrative comes across as raw and real, and there is an emotional brutality to The Damage Done that would be lost if the author was obsessed with playing around with sentence structures. Fellows has lived through his tale, and is here to tell you what he saw.
Throughout the book, Fellows and his mates in prison suffer through some of the most inhumane torture, beatings, and other severe crimes against human rights. Some of the descriptions of the conditions in the prison would sound outlandish and made up if we didn’t know from other sources that the prison conditions in many prisons around the world are indeed horrible, and were probably even worse in the 70s and 80s.
Amidst the darkness of the story is a narrative about the resilience of the human spirit, and the persistence of hope. The balance of these two elements makes the story an enjoyable, memorable read.
Not for the faint of heart!
1. The Killer Department, by Robert Cullen & Victor Burakov. (1993 Pantheon)
In my humble opinion, this is the best true crime book ever written.
The Killer Department is a collaboration between writer Robert Cullen and Victor Burakov, the actual chief of the homicide division tasked with bringing down Andrei Chikatilo, one of the worst serial killers in history.
The book is a perfect example of how to weave together historical elements with a main true crime narrative without once losing focus. The fields and cities of Soviet Union are painted before our eyes with the magic of words, and when Chikatilo appears “on stage”, he walks into a perfectly constructed historical time and place, which makes reading his horrifying story that much more interesting.
Rather than just emphasizing the evil of Chikatilo, a deranged madman who murdered and ate women and children across Russia, the authors give life to the minor players involved as well. Family members, loved ones and friends of the victims are created on the pages as living human beings left with a lifetime of sorrow after Chikatilo was done with their loved ones.
Suspenseful, brilliantly written, and with a story to tell that will leave you speechless, I consider this to be the crowning achievement of true crime writing.