True crime stories and true crime books are massively popular. The best true crime books are the ones that are thrilling page-turners rather than vague headlines from the days when a well-known serial killer roamed the streets and terrorized the neighborhoods. Readers want a well-rounded picture that includes all aspects of the crime: entrapment operation, trial, and punishment, if possible.
True crime books have evolved, and the best of them tell true stories of a crime or serial killers, such as the Golden State Killer or Zodiac Killer. These stories are written in an engaging way that allows readers to know how the crime started and how the justice system came into the picture to punish the offender.
The True Story of Cold Blood
True crime entices many for a variety of reasons. Many of us cannot fathom the wickedness it takes to murder in cold blood. Some of us cannot fathom what it must feel like to lose a loved one to a brutal murder, all too often perpetrated by a spouse or a loved one. Like a carnival sideshow, we are lured in by what we cannot imagine but is somehow real.
The True Crime Genre
The genre of true crime novels became popular because of true crime documentaries that can be viewed on television and many other streaming platforms. These forms of media work together to bring true crime classic format and crime books to the forefront of the public’s interest. Due to the immediate availability of this genre, it can no longer be ignored by anyone that American history has many murders, crimes, and a streak of cold blood references.
Best true crime books focus on everything—from the crime itself to the psychology behind what creates a serial killer to the childhood and background of the killer. True crime investigation is often just as captivating to the reader as the crime itself. This article will provide a list of some of the best true crime books that the biggest fans of true story crime will surely enjoy.
1. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (Michelle McNamara)
Written by an investigative journalist about the Golden State Killer who committed over 50 sexual assaults and ten brutal murders, this book tells the true story of a serial killer who was never caught and really showcased how dedicated some people were to find the killer and give them to the justice system to be punished.
When the serial killer featured in this book disappeared, McNamara obsessively continued to investigate and follow leads until her sudden and unexpected death. Picking up where she left off, her husband, comedian, and actor, Patton Oswalt, finished her book and brought her obsession to the limelight.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was also adapted for the screen as a documentary streaming on HBOMax.
2. In Cold Blood (Truman Capote)
Hailed as one of the best true crime books, this is the story of a family brutally murdered in their home located in Kansas in the 1950s. Each family member was shot at point-blank range in the face with a shotgun. The investigation was nearly dead on arrival, as there was little evidence of who the killers were.
This thrilling, uncomfortable, and suspenseful book that reads more like a novel than a nonfiction book takes this true crime from its beginning all the way to the execution of the murderers. This book is one of the most popular true crime books and has garnered even more attention and fame as the genre gains renewed popularity.
3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann)
Killers of the Flower Moon is an essential book because it tells the racial and social injustice that history has tried to bury. During the oil rush on native Osage land in Oklahoma, deaths started to occur at an alarming rate. Those deaths, however, were exclusive to Natives and not the whites who wanted the oil rights that were on Osage land. No one stepped in to investigate until the death toll rose to a point where it could no longer be ignored or swept under the rug.
The FBI was new and struggled to investigate this string of crimes until a Native agent joined the case, and things finally started to open up. This book is not a simple true crime story—it is a story that is part of American history that has been dragged out into the open by Grann. The mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of Osage natives are no longer a secret.
4. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (Erik Larson)
In the late 1800s, the World’s Fair in Chicago was a spectacle that garnered people’s attention. This is the story of two different people whose stories diverge. It is so well done that it reads like a novel rather than a true crime.
One perspective comes from an architect tasked to create a White City that would help Chicago attract more tourists and residents and hopefully move them away from the reputation the city was making for itself. The other story told in this book is one of the most prolific serial killers and one of the first: H.H. Holmes. The Devil in the White City is a story that will keep you on your heels and almost may convince you that it must be fiction.
Holmes built a hotel that featured false walls, trapdoors, dungeons, and nearly anything else you could imagine that would turn a hotel into a madhouse of terror. He used this property to capture, torture, and murder young girls and women discovered beneath the floors, under the streets, and within the walls.
5. The Stranger Beside Me (Ann Rule)
The firsthand account of a coworker of one of the most prolific serial killers in America, Ted Bundy, Ann Rule wrote this tell-all as a way to provide a definitive account of the events surrounding the charismatic, handsome, unsuspecting murderer of young women.
Ted Bundy fooled nearly everyone around him. He was able to have a relationship, was close to his girlfriend’s daughter, worked at a crisis center with Rule, and was active in politics. He managed to create a normal environment in front of many people, but he was busy picking up and murdering young women behind his normal environment.
6. The Blood of Emmett Till (Timothy B. Tyson)
The killing of Emmett Till, a Black child, in the 1950s, for the crime of having offended a white woman at a store is a story that seems like it cannot be true. Sadly, it is. This tragic event helped put the Civil Rights movement into action and helped to end segregation eventually.
This gut-wrenching story of a child murdered for something so ridiculous that the woman later recanted shows how it paved the way to progress for minorities, but was still a senseless act of violence.
7. Just Mercy (Byran Stevenson)
This book is a memoir written by Stevenson, who, during his time as a young lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative, met a Black man who was sentenced to death for the murder of his lover, a white woman. He maintained that he was innocent, but because the same level of representation and justice was not afforded to him, blaming a Black man for having an affair with a white woman who died was the easiest thing to do.
This is the shocking inside story of true racial inequality in America told by someone who witnessed it firsthand.
8. Lost Girls (Robert Kolker)
This best true crime story is about five women murdered by a serial killer, and that justice was not given to them because all five women worked as sex workers. Trying to escape poverty and get their feet under them, these women met a serial killer online, and in doing so, sealed their fate.
The police largely swept all of this under the rug because the women were prostitutes. Their death was barely investigated, and the killer was never caught.
9. Say Nothing (Patrick Radden)
Not all of the best true crime books on this list occurred in the U.S. In this book, the crime happened in Ireland, where Irish Republican Army (IRA) members abducted a mother of ten children. Her skeletal remains were found decades later, which propelled the story and revived the tension between Northern Ireland and the IRA once again to the surface.
10. Helter Skelter (Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry)
The fascinating story of the cult that Charles Manson referred to as his family. This story goes into great detail and covers everything from the psychology to the crimes and murders of the cult, including the trial of its leader, Charles Manson, who never killed anyone.
The Manson trial is still debated today because Manson did not commit the crimes—instead, he convinced his cult to do all of the dirty work for him. This story looks into the nature of humans, what true evil is, and how one man could convince others to follow him and kill for him. The Manson Family murders sparked tremendous interest in cult behavior on the human mind and psyche.
It is possibly the most well-known best true crime book in existence today. The case of Charles Manson continues to fascinate people, written by the prosecuting attorney during the trial. You will not find a more accurate telling or a more enthralling account of what really took place inside and outside the courtroom in the Manson case.
11. Missoula: Rape and Justice in a College Town (Jon Krakauer)
The University of Montana, in Missoula, Montana, is known for many things, but what this book brings to the reader’s attention is not the academic nods, the sports program, or the beautiful geographic setting. Instead, this book presents that the college cares so much about its reputation that it has created an environment where rape victims cannot be heard and seek justice.
12. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (Kate Summerscale)
One of the very first Detectives in Britain, Whicher, was tasked with investigating the death of a small child. In a daring move that was nearly unthought of at the time, Whicher accused the child’s family of the murder, which turned out to be true. This story involves narrative nonfiction that reads more like a novel than actual events.
13. The Other Wes Moore (Wes Moore)
This is the story of two men who have the same name and were raised in the same neighborhood. One of them grew up incredibly successful, while the other ended up in prison, serving a life sentence. In this book, the two Wes Moore men get to know each other through letters, become friends, and illustrate how differently two people from the same place and similar ages can turn out.
14. The Executioner’s Song (Norman Mailer)
This true crime story is considered the epitome of the genre and won the Pulitzer Prize. It is about a murderer who killed two people during a robbery attempt. The man is convicted, and rather than sitting in prison or on death row for years, he wants to die for his crimes immediately. The fight for his right to death is a dark face of America’s justice system, and Mailer did a fantastic job telling the story.
15. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Hallie Rubenhold)
Everyone knows who Jack the Ripper is, and most people know that he killed five women and was never caught or even correctly identified. What most people do not know anything about is the identity of the women Jack the Ripper murdered.
This book focuses on the lives of the five women killed, based upon exhaustive research by the book’s author. This book not only brings these victims into the light of day for the world to meet and to know but really connects real people to the pure evil that Jack the Ripper was.
16. If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood (Gregg Olsen)
This is the story of family members who endured hell at the hands of their mother. Silent about it for years, the three girls finally came forward with their true tale of abuse and suffering altogether. This heartbreaking story of three girls who grew up together with the bond of having been through unimaginable abuse at the hands of their mother is a difficult book to read. Still, one that is compelling, interesting, and really brings to light how cruel some parents can be towards their children and its effect on those children for the remainder of their lives.
17. My Dark Places (James Ellroy)
A well-known author of true crime books, this book acts as his tell-all. James Ellroy explains how he got into the genre. His own mother’s murder when he was a child pushed him towards investigating, helping the police, and seeking justice. As an adult, he saw the turmoil the families of other victims of violent crimes and murders went through as the cases went cold. He devoted his time to assisting the police in any way possible and started writing about the true crimes. This raw and emotional book tells actual loss that any avid reader of the genre should read.
18. Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three (Mara Leveritt)
This book takes an in-depth look at the case of the West Memphis Three—three teenagers who were convicted and charged with the brutal killing of three young children. The case and the guilty verdict essentially had to do with the teenagers’ clothing style, reading material, and music preferences. Everything from the motive of the murderers to a misconstrued and shoddy crime scene investigation revolved around the insistence by the prosecution that these were devil-worshiping teens who killed three young boys as a sacrifice in a ritual.
Accused of being in a satanic cult, these three teens faced life imprisonment. One of them even got the death penalty as a verdict. Years later, the three teens, now men, were released when the case was reopened and justice was served.
19. The Feather Thief (Kirk Wallace Johnson)
This book written by Johnson is an odd story of a flutist who broke into and robbed the British Museum of Natural History of its rare bird skins. Just when you think that this story cannot get any odder, it somehow does. This is a whole new take on crime and a piece of crime writing that you would not expect. If you are looking for something different and a little out-of-the-box story, this may be the book for you.
20. The Poisoner’s Handbook (Deborah Blum)
This book is less about crime and more about the science and progress that led to today’s field of forensic toxicology. From its birth to its development and every step of the way, Blum walks the reader through the shocking revelations made in forensic science in a relatively small duration. It shows how vital toxicology is to the world of forensics and crime-solving and how different chemicals and practices were used to figure out causes of death, poisons consumed by victims, and substances found in the bloodstreams of the deceased.