11 True Crime Books That Prove Real Life Can Be Scarier than Fiction

Between the Netflix hit Making a Murderer and the FX limited series that everyone keeps talking about, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, it seems like a true crime sensation is sweeping the nation. What is it that makes true crime—whether it’s a television show, movie, or book—so much more intriguing than a fictional story?

When reading a scary fiction story, you might get chills down your spine or bite your nails, but true crime stories are the ones that never leave you. They keep you up at night wondering, “How could anyone do this?”, or worse, “Could this happen to me?”

Any good murder, mystery, or thriller will make you look both ways before crossing a darkened parking lot, but ­­true crime will make you question every dim hallway, mysterious noise, and stranger’s smile. Despite their chilling effects, we can’t help but read them anyways. There’s something captivating in the truth, no matter how gruesome, that keeps us turning the pages. And whether they’re pulled straight from the most recent headlines or from the footnotes of history, there’s are plenty of more true stories to tell.

Murder mysteries may be scary, but these 11 true crime books prove that real life can be way more terrifying than fiction.

1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

There is no finer piece of true crime than Truman Capote’s classic, In Cold Blood. In it, Capote slowly unravels the mystery behind the murder of the Cutter family in 1959, as well as the search, capture, and execution of the men responsible for the tragedy. Insightful and unyielding, In Cold Blood is an essential read for any fan of true crime.

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2. Picture Perfect: The Jodi Arias Story by Shanna Hogan

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last eight years, you probably know all about the Jodi Arias story—but Shanna Hogan’s Picture Perfect sheds a whole new light on the crime that captured the attention of an entire nation. A violent story about love, deception, and obsession, the intimate details in Picture Perfect will give you the chills.

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3. Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt

Finding the truth in real life is even harder than in a murder mystery novel, something that Devil’s Knot proves in spades in this account of the shocking case of three murdered eight-year-old boys in West Memphis and the three teenagers that were sentenced and, years later, released for the horrific crime. An intriguing page-turner, Mara Leveritt’s Devil’s Knot will have you questioning what’s true, and what just appears to be.

See also: The Unsettling Case of the West Memphis Three

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4. The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber

What happens when the ones charged with saving our lives decide they enjoy ending them more? Charles Graeber’s The Good Nurse is a chilling account of the murderous life and career of Charlie Cullen, the “Angel of Death” responsible for as many as 300 patient deaths. Twisted, revealing, and shocking, The Good Nurse is a whole new kind of frightening.

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5. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

Celebrated nonfiction author Erik Larson knows a thing or two about making true crime come to life on the page, but his finest work is his horrifying narrative of serial killer H.H. Holmes (yes, the same H.H. Holmes who will be brought back to life by Leonardo DiCaprio in the upcoming Martin Scorsese film), The Devil in the White City. Set against the backdrop of the 1893 Chicago World's fair, Larson’s book covers not only Holmes dastardly deeds, but also some of the time periods most important moments and people, including the invention of the Ferris Wheel and the word on Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. A great choice for history and mystery lovers alike.

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6. Boston Mob: The Rise and Fall of the New England Mob and Its Most Notorious Killer by Marc Songini

There’s no one in America who hasn’t heard of Whitey Bulger and his Boston Irish mob, but how much do you know about the other members and enforcers? In Boston Mob, Marc Songini explores some of the mob’s most violent years, and goes inside the head of strongman Joseph “The Animal” Barboza, a feared hitman responsible for over 25 deaths before being murdered himself. Trust me, it’s even more interesting than The Sopranos.

Check out an excerpt of Boston Mob on CE!

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7. Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

The one comfort in reading a true crime book is knowing how it ends before you even begin it, but the ending of Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls is as unfinished as the unsolved murder cases themselves. A book that explores the shadowy world of professional escorts, where a twisted serial killer finds paradise and the police find unanswerable questions, Lost Girls is guaranteed to keep you up at night.

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8. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt

When Danny Hansford was murdered at the home of Jim Williams in the early morning hours of a May day, the question everyone seemed to be asking was: was it murder or self-defense? The kind of nonfiction book that reads like a novel, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil explores the mystery, prejudice, and lies surrounding this real-life murder case. You won’t be able to put this one down.

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9. Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell

There are dozens of books about the real-life mystery surrounding Jack the Ripper, the brutal serial killer that terrorized the streets of London in the late 19th century, but Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait of a Killer is the most comprehensive and illuminating. Thoroughly researched and compulsively readable, Portrait of a Killer dives into the legend, the history, and the new evidence surrounding Jack the Ripper, exposing the legendary serial killer in a way that’s never been done before.

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10. The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town by John Grisham

Though best known for his fictional legal thrillers, John Grisham’s The Innocent Man is the gripping true story of Ron Williamson, a baseball star on the rise, whose entire life was turned upside down when he was wrongfully charged and sentenced to death for the murder of Debra Sue Carter. A shocking page-turner, this is a Grisham book you don’t want to miss.

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11. Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi

No true crime round up would be complete without mentioning Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s insider’s story about the Charles Manson murders and subsequent trials. A terrifying true account of one of the world’s most famous crimes, Helter Skelter is necessary addition to any true crime lover’s library.

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Any true crime novels not on this list that you go psycho about? Let us know in the comments!

 


Sadie Trombetta is a freelance writer and proud bibliophile hiding out in the hills of Western Massachusetts. A terrible representation of her generation's prowess of all things technology, she's most likely found hiking up one mountain or another with at least four books in her backpack. Will work in exchange for plane tickets.

Comments

  1. J. L. Abramo

    The three documentaries, PARADISE LOST (1996), PARADISE LOST 2 (2000) and 3 (2011) about the West Memphis Three are superior.

  2. Adam Wagner

    That’s a great documentary series!

  3. Darlene Wright

    The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule is a great account of Ted Bundy!

  4. Tony K.

    Jack the Ripper – Case Closed? Oh, please. How many more of these “definitive” books about Jack the Ripper must we endure?

  5. Joe Brosnan

    Love the list! I must throw in my own suggestion of PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS by Richard Lloyd Parry. It’s a deep dive into the case of a missing woman in Tokyo in the 90s, but it also takes a long look at the Japanese culture, and how so many different factors contributed to slow down what should have been a quick case. It is legitamately one of the best books I’ve ever read.

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