Many true crime books are as disposable as yesterday’s newspaper. And that’s really not surprising, as they have a similar purpose. They usually report on the facts, investigation, and trial, just in more depth than the newspaper. Frequently, an author picks up on a current case that gets a lot of media attention and tries to fire off a book ahead of the competition. (Just check how many books there are about Jeffrey Dahmer.) These books can be heavy on facts, short on art.
But there are exceptions to this, books that rise above the simple telling of facts and offer something more, whether it’s a chilling glimpse into the mind of a killer, insight into the dark corners of society, or maybe even the satisfaction of justice being served. Books that can be enjoyed more than once, just for the pleasure of the reading.
Of course, the granddaddy of all true crime literature is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It tells the story of how two ex-cons, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, break into the remote Kansas farmhouse of the Clutter family, believing there is a safe on the premises with a large stash of money. When they find there is no money, they murder all four family members, one by one, in cold blood.
What makes the book extraordinary is the psychological insight Capote achieves, not only with the Clutter family but also with the investigators and the community. But the centerpiece of the book is Perry Smith, a troubled man with an abusive past. Capote was allowed pretty free access to the prisoner and conducted extensive interviews with him. While Capote clearly has sympathy for Smith, he also doesn’t shy away from letting us see the monster inside. When he speaks about the murder of Herb Clutter, Smith utters this chilling observation:
“I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”
I also highly recommend the film Capote as a companion to the book. The movie covers the years in which Capote was researching and writing the book, and suggests that the author paid a very high price, emotionally and psychologically, in creating his masterpiece.
Coming from a less dark place, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a charming, un-putdownable work by John Berendt. In case you missed it during its phenomenal 216 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in the 1990s, the book is really about the city of Savannah, Georgia, and the many quirky characters the author meets there. But a large part of the book is concerned with the four (yes, four!) murder trials of respected antiques dealer Jim Williams, all of them for the killing of Danny Hansford, a local male prostitute. The book is somewhat gossipy, just like the inhabitants of Savannah, but it’s also a lovely, lyrical read about people you’d probably like to get to know, especially over a few mint juleps.
Finally, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson is my favorite true crime book. It mitigates the truly horrific story of one of the first known serial killers in the United States with the remarkable story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
The devil of the title is H.H. Holmes, who killed somewhere between 27 and 200 people. The reason for the huge range is because Holmes had devised a wickedly effective method for obtaining victims without raising suspicion. He had a hotel constructed to his unique specifications, which included guest rooms fit out as gas chambers, soundproof rooms in the basement, and a large kiln for disposing of bodies. His hotel was located close to the area where the World’s Fair was taking place, and he handpicked single travelers as his guests, especially women, who wouldn’t be immediately missed. So it’s hard to tell how many people had their lives ended in the infamous “Murder Castle.”
The story of this audacious killer is interspersed with chapters on the creation of the White City fairgrounds, particularly the architecture, and the clash of personalities involved in this spectacular achievement.
So those are some of my favorites. What would you recommend as true crime literature?
Cindy Harkness is a librarian, an advocate for rescued animals, and totally addicted to true crime television programs.