Narrative Nonfiction—True Crime Edition
True crime stories have recently become the stuff of workplace water-cooler debates, thanks to the popularity of sensations such as Serial, The Jinx, Making a Murderer, and The People v. O.J. Simpson.
Books about true crimes can be trickier to navigate. Many of them are tawdry and sensationalistic, while others are too dry and academic for the leisure reader. The books on this list represent the middle ground between these two extremes, and aim to appeal to those fans of Serial et al. Written in the tradition of Truman Capote’s seminal book In Cold Blood, these titles employ an easily-accessible, novelistic approach to crime writing, with a distinctive narrative voice, and (mostly) without being too graphic in their depictions of crime. (My Dark Places may not be for the squeamish)
Whether you prefer your books historical or contemporary, rigorously researched or speculative; if true crime is your pleasure, there’s bound to be a title here to tide you over until the next water-cooler sensation comes along.
A recently-fired crime journalist decides to fill his spare time investigating the 2004 disappearance of Maura Murray until his casual project becomes an all-consuming obsession in this true crime/memoir mashup that manages to be as twisty and spooky as Renner’s novels.
In the mid-60’s, Dean Unkefer was part of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, located at 90 Church Street in Manhattan. The agency was largely unregulated; as long as they continued making drug busts, a blind eye was turned to their own rampant drug abuse, the large amounts of cash “disappearing,” their seducing informants, and—oh, yeah—the murders. It’s a horrific story of power abused delivered as a gleeful romp.
A scattershot account of a mysterious murder in the American South written by an Australian journalist who finds himself a fish-out-of-water as he investigates the killing of a white supremacist named Richard Barrett by a black man who may or may not have been Barrett’s lover. It reads like a fragmented Southern Gothic, as Safran’s voice digressively interrupts his own narrative, but it’s a compelling, unusual book.
This is one of the books responsible for the recent resurgence of the ‘literary’ true crime genre. It reads like fiction, and its focus is more on the quirky individuals Berendt met during the course of his investigation and the eccentricities of Savannah itself than on the actual crime. Most true crime makes you want to stay far away from where the crime was committed, this one invites you in and makes you a drink.
In a book as gritty as his fiction, esteemed crime novelist James Ellroy investigates the unsolved murder of his mother in this combination of reportage and memoir. He explores the impact her death had on his personal development and career path and examines the sickness of a society in which brutal crimes like these go unnoticed and unsolved, or are eroticized for a public’s ghoulish titillation. Dark places, indeed
Erik Larson is the darling of the narrative nonfiction genre, and this is the book that put him there. It is a gripping account of both the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and H.H. Holmes, the extremely prolific serial killer hard at work on its outskirts. Rich with historical detail, Larson manages to make the difficulties of getting the Fair off the ground as intense as the serial killer storyline.
Former journalist and creator of The Wire, Simon proves that he’s always understood Baltimore, warts & all. This was the basis for TV’s Homicide, which Simon also wrote for, and it describes the year he spent shadowing Baltimore’s Homicide Unit, with unlimited access. It’s a riveting, detailed look at crime, policing, the gritty pulse of Baltimore, in prose so effortless and polished you get why The Wire was so good.
In 1889 Liverpool, the young widow of a much-older man is accused of poisoning him, to the shock and delight of a Victorian public as grimly entertained by scandal as any modern audience. Court transcripts, diaries, and newspapers combine here with servants’ gossip and the author’s surmises to present a story of adultery, gender inequality, early forensic arts, and the dark underbelly of the genteel Victorian façade.
In the winter of 1873, six prospectors entered the Colorado Rockies and became lost. In the spring, Alfred G. Packer was the only one left alive, and his version of the events that transpired there the only one we have to understand how five people died and were subsequently eaten by Packer; whether it was self-defense, as he claims, or cold-blooded murder. Deliciously chilling!
This one is a bit of an anomaly, but it’s such a hoot to read, I needed to include it. Using biographical information, excerpts from his writing, and LOTS of anagramming, Richard Wallace PROVES, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jack the Ripper was none other than Lewis Carroll. OK, maybe not beyond the shadow of a doubt, but I dare you to read it without finding yourself nodding along and thinking, “well, maybe…”