The Best—And Worst—Conspiracy Books

A million conspiracies surround us all the time.
Do you believe?
I do not believe every conspiracy theory that comes down the pipe. I really don’t. I am not a 9/11 “truther.” I am not a “birther.” But, as Sixth Floor Museum head Gary Mack famously told Jesse Ventura, “when I go home at night, I think there has to be something more than Lee Harvey Oswald.” When it comes down to it, I believe that William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, wrote the works of … William Shakespeare.

I read widely in conspiracy literature for one reason. Not all conspiracy theories are without merit, and not all conspiracy theorists are “wackos.” In the world of logical fallacies, this is called an argumentum ad hominem or “argument to the man.” You do not attack your opponent’s argument, the facts, or the logic. You try to undermine their credibility by calling them names. If that sounds juvenile, it is.

That said, to paraphrase George Orwell, some conspiracy books are more equal than others. Here are my choices for the top five best conspiracy books out there, in no particular order, and then the five worst.

The Best:

  • Conspiracy! (Not In Your Lifetime) by British journalist Anthony Summers
    Not In Your Lifetime by Anthony Summers; the definitive book on the JFK assassination theories
    The definitive book on JFK assassination theories
    I first became aware of Summers’ work through his book on Tsar Nicholas and the Russian royal family’s demise, The File on the Tsar. Summers’ research into the John F. Kennedy assassination is a logical, for the most part dispassionate, look at the evidence. It’s difficult to argue with his conclusions, and the best his critics can come up with is “he listened to the wrong people,” implying, of course, that they know the right people to listen to. It is far and away the most cogent dissection of that tragedy that I’ve ever read.
  • The Reckoning by noted British author Charles Nicholl
    Strictly speaking, his 1994 enquiry into the 1593 death of poet Christopher Marlowe is not a conspiracy book per se. But it is. With a remarkable attention to detail and painstaking research, Nicholl’s goes a long way to proving that Marlowe’s death in a Deptford tavern was stage-managed by Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.
  • Orders to Kill by William Pepper
    Dr. William Pepper has made the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. very nearly his life’s work. While there is much to disagree with in Pepper’s major work on the subject, he brings to light some interesting questions that have never been adequately answered.
  • The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies by William Hanchett
    This is not about any one conspiracy in the death of Abraham Lincoln. Rather it studies the development over time of the various theories. It is a must read for anyone that approaches the field of conspiracy theories without any preconceived notions.
  • Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh
    This is the granddaddy of all of those Da Vinci Codes and clones. It’s not so much that I agree with their findings, but reading this book really helps to clarify things and shows where Dan Brown came up with all the trappings in his books.

The Worst:

  • The Jesus Papers by Michael Baigent
    The Jesus Papers, incomprehensible
    An incomprehensible
    This book by one of the Holy Blood authors has to be one of the most bizarre books in conspiracy history. Baigent purports to have tracked down the owner of a document that threatens to shake the foundations of Christianity. When he finally confronts this owner, he is shown an ancient letter, written in Aramaic (a language that Baigent cannot read) and told that it is a letter from Jesus to the Sanhedrin explaining his actions (the implication being that Jesus was trying to save his own hide). So, the reader is asked to believe that an anonymous person has a letter that the author can’t read and that we will never see, that exposes Jesus as, essentially, a fraud. And if you believe that, I’ve got some of that proverbial swampland ….
  • The Tomb of God by Richard Andrews and Paul Schellenberger
    This tome claims to solve the Rennes-le-chateau mystery of the redoubtable Abbot Sauniere, as well as revealing the location of Jesus’s tomb. The major problem with this book is not that it’s wrong, but that it is nearly incomprehensible. I don’t know whether it’s wrong because the book is so laden with geometric verbiage that I was lost most of the time. And I plowed through it twice.
  • Case Closed by Gerald Posner—Yeah, you wish. Posner happily engages in the argumentum ad hominem on JFK conspiracy theorists. And he makes incredibly ridiculous statements. To paraphrase one, “Lee Harvey Oswald qualified in rifle marksmanship, thus he was capable of firing the shots that killed Kennedy,” the implication being that that qualified him to be the assassin. Unfortunately, Posner knows nothing about marksmanship qualification in the armed forces. I do. I took my basic training at Ft. Knox, KY in the summer of 1975. I qualified as a marksman, and I couldn’t have hit JFK on a bet. Posner, as well as others, have consistently ignored the opinion of Carlos Hathcock, the legendary Marine sniper with 93 confirmed kills, who said that he could not have made those shots with that weapon. And that’s but one example.
  • The Shakespeare Conspiracy by Graham Phillips
    If we are to believe BBC reporter Phillips’s bibliography, he has solved every historical mystery in the world. Except, maybe, the JFK assassination. In his Shakespeare opus, he claims that Shakespeare was a secret agent for the crown. And that the Shakespeare of Stratford was different than Shakespeare the playwright. Oh, and Sir Walter Raleigh had Shakespeare murdered. The major problem with this and others of Phillips’ works is that he twists events and records that are open to interpretation to fit his own theory without allowing for the possibility of other avenues.
  • The 9/11 Conspiracy by James Fetzer
    Fetzer is well known in JFK assassination circles. He was featured prominently in the series, The Men Who Killed Kennedy, which had its own credibility issues and caused the British Parliament to censure the producer. But Fetzer’s venture into the alleged 9/11 conspiracy is not his finest moment. In actuality, he only edited this collection of essays, but his name is still on the cover. Are there unanswered questions in the 9/11 Commission report? Sure there are. But in any investigation into an event of this magnitude there are going to be unanswered questions. That doesn’t mean that the answers always lie in dark corners with cold-hearted, conspiratorial people. And Fetzer’s public claims that a “high energy” beam pulverized the concrete in the Twin Towers smacks more of fiction than nonfiction.

I was in Kuwait when Princess Diana was killed in that horrible wreck in Paris. Within two or three hours of her death, the Egyptians that I knew were already saying that the British royal family had Diana killed because she was going to marry Dodi Fahed. We knew virtually nothing about the details surrounding the accident, but it was already a conspiracy.

Humans love conspiracy theories. I admit that I do. All I ask is that we exercise a little common sense in the process.

Conspiracy cartoon from TopatoCo.

When Tony Hays isn’t traveling the world, teaching students, and adopting puppies, he takes time out to write the Arthurian Mystery series from Tor/Forge.


  1. Teresa Nielsen Hayden

    The problem with Holy Blood, Holy Grail is that it doesn’t make a case for the truth of its bizarre scenarios. What it demonstrates is that there are people who believe those scenarios: a different thing altogether.

    Missing from your list:

    Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. It’s a hybrid conspiracy theory/novel that takes on the supposed villainy of Richard III, and the Tudor campaign to blacken his name.

    Illuminatus!, by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. It’s a glorious mess, but no work has done more to introduce the general public to the world of conspiracy theories.

    Just about anything by Jay Kinney.

  2. Gary C

    I’d drop in Vincent Bugliosi’s snarky tree-killing JFKer Reclaiming History (for reasons unknown an Edgar winner) on the worst list; 1000 pages of not even trying to be fair, much less analytical.

  3. ted miller

    visit exposing the real rulers of the world

  4. Ana Robin

    9/11 was an inside job. The royals (probably Nazi pedophile prince Phillip) offed Di. I believe she was about to expose the Savile pedo ring. Common sense tells me so. Hopefully you’ve looked a little further down the rabbit hole by now.

  5. John Carroll

    As Richard Gage and hundreds of other architects and engineers have proved, the twin towers were brought down by controlled demolition, by nano-thermite explosives. The demolition theory is correct but does not explain how automobiles seven blocks from the towers were burned in inexplicable ways; nor does it explain the occurrence of other bizarre phenomena at the WTC (weird fires, pulverization of concrete, flowing molten metal, fires that burned for three months, etc.). Certainly burning jet fuel cannot account for all these strange occurrences. Any open-minded person would consider that the theory of Dr. Judy Woods about an energy beam is not so far fetched (see her carefully researched book on the topic). It is reasonable to think that a combination of nano-thermite and an energy beam brought down the towers and resulted in the many bizarre phenomena at the WTC on 9/11.

  6. SamD

    Good Lord, truthers are still pushing this crap. Recycling the same wash Loose Change was trying to pawn off years ago still doesn’t “prove” anything about controlled demolitions. Read “Debunking the 9/11 Myths” Popular Mechanics put out about ten years ago. I realize you likely won’t, but it’s fun read for conspiracy buffs in the same way non-buffs might enjoy reading imaginative conspiracy yarns.

  7. Ted Bacino

    Tony Hays, what about the NOVEL based only on historical details entitled “The Shakespeare Conspiracy” by Ted Bacino? The last third of the book verifies the facts in the novel.

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