Really Good Books About Real Murder

If you missed our compilation of really good books about fake murder, you can catch up here. Before everyone asks “what about The Devil in the White City?” I’m going to put it out there: for some reason, it was not my favorite. I apologize! I think I’ve read the first thirty pages eight times. Everyone else loves it, so you should read it.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, Haruki Murakami — This is one of those odd books you find yourself constantly pushing on others, then stumbling when you’re asked about the subject matter. “Oh, it’s a bunch of commentary-free interviews with the victims and perpetrators of the 1995 sarin attacks by Aum Shinrikyo. And they all sound very similar, but it’s weirdly hypnotic and troubling and brilliant. You’ll … love it?”

Fatal Vision, Joe McGinniss/The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm — Long story short: man murders family (he totally did!), Joe McGinniss is hired to write a book about how he didn’t do it, Joe McGinniss spends time with the murderer and his defense attorneys, becomes convinced of his guilt, writes book accordingly (that would be Fatal Vision), is sued by the murderer in question, settles out of court. Janet Malcolm turns entire saga into a brilliant meditation on the inherent dishonesty of journalism. Read ’em both, in that order.

Columbine, Dave Cullen — It’s a masterpiece. It’s also a tribute to what can be achieved if a writer can step aside from the weird narratives we construct around any major societal event and just learn from the verifiable information at hand. I cannot say enough positive things about this book.

Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi — Oh, this one. Personally, I think he’s too hard on some of Manson’s minions, but it’s still the definitive account, and absolutely gripping.

A Death in White Bear Lake, Barry Siegel — The loathsome woman who committed the titular crime is, by all accounts, alive and well and living in Minnesota. If you read it, you will have to talk yourself out of making a vigilante road trip. Might be best to avoid the book entirely, really. An incredible example of a successful cold case.

The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen By Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, ed. Klee, Dressen, and Riess — Completely horrifying, and brilliantly compiled. Recommended for anyone who doesn’t think they have the stomach for all nine and a half hours of Lanzmann’s Shoah. You should definitely watch Shoah, however.

The Stranger Beside Me or Green River, Running Red, Ann Rule — Yes, Ann Rule can be a little tabloid-y. But, for heaven’s sake, she worked at a crisis hotline with Ted Bundy. Obviously you want to read this book. As for the latter, I must confess to a certain…yeeesh…fascination? with Gary Leon Ridgway, the Green River Killer. When he finally got picked up from an old DNA hit, no fewer than four people emailed me to say “hey, did you see they caught your guy?” He’s not my guy, per se, but I remain obsessed with the idea that he drastically scaled back his murderous ways, for a very long time, because he married this nice middle-aged lady and just wanted to hang out with her at home and watch TV and own a couple of poodles. It’s the romantic in me, I guess. Oh, and Neko Case’s “Deep Red Bells” is based on Ridgway. Let’s move on.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder — Extraordinary book, although, again, not exactly light reading. And, of course, perfect ammunition for the still-unsuccessful campaign to take away Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer.

The Maul and the Pear Tree, P.D. James and Thomas Critchley — Would that I could get through a reading list without hawking a book by P.D. James. Alas, she is my spirit animal. A personal favorite in the annals of (extremely old) true crime. What a weird, delightful little book.

Cries Unheard, Gitta Sereny — You may or may not be familiar with the case of Mary Bell, who, at the age of 10, killed two small boys. Sereny has a tough job in making Mary Bell into a sympathetic figure, but I believe she does manage it. Sereny has a passionate interest in the question of evil and personal redemption, which she explored in her better-known book on Albert Speer.

Famous Trials, John Mortimer — This completely random little collection of English murder trivia is utterly engrossing. Keep in mind that it’s just cobbled together from the rather more epic Notable British Trials series, which is the spiritual father of…

TruTV’s Crime Library — I have wasted … years … of my life in here. I regret nothing. Tread lightly, lest you descend into gradual madness and paranoia.

(Shot in the Heart and Wicked Beyond Belief appeared on previous reading lists, and In Cold Blood has obviously already been read by anyone who really cares about murder.)