25 True Crime Books You Won’t Be Able to Put Down
Turn on the lights and lock the doors before you settle in with one of these terrifying true crime books. These real-life stories are as scary as it gets.
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The best true crime books of all time
Are you one of those people who get the ultimate thrill from immersing themselves in spooky, thought-provoking, real-life investigations? Do you binge true crime documentaries the day they release on Netflix? Then these true crime books are for you.
Our roundup of the best true crime books of all time will take you from the Victorian era to contemporary times. The list includes works from Pulitzer Prize–winning journalists, books that have been adapted into TV series and hit films, and books that garnered top reviews from thousands of fans. You’ll come across best sellers, insider takes, and classics from the genre. You’ll also find these true crime books have something else to offer: great writing that keeps you hooked from page one.
If you get too scared, take a break with one of best books of all time or the best biographies, best nonfiction books, and best thriller books. You may also prefer fantastic historical fiction to keep you entertained. But if you really want to be scared senseless and creeped out beyond reason, look to the best true crime books. After all, the only thing more disturbing than fictional horror is real life.
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1. Lost Girls by Robert Kolker (2013)
Robert Kolker’s acclaimed true crime mystery follows the investigation of a serial killer on Long Island who preyed on young women between 2007 and 2010. Kolker’s account of the crimes and the desperate circumstances of the young girls will leave you obsessed long after you’ve finished reading. Based on exhaustive research and published in 2013, the book aims to make sense of unthinkable crimes. What happened to these young girls? Kolker takes you into their lives and choices, leaving readers utterly haunted by the loss recounted in this sad book.
2. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (2019)
The author of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark spent years investigating the notorious Golden State Killer. Michelle McNamara explored police reports, looked into victims, and relentlessly sought answers to the devastating crime spree that took place in the 1970s and 1980s in Northern California. Tragically, she passed away in the midst of writing this, which reads like a true crime book with the tinge of autobiography. McNamara’s work, published in 2019, has been hailed as one of the masterpieces of true crime books—especially since it helped solve the case. Follow up your reading by watching the HBO documentary series based on this best seller.
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3. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (2015)
If you were moved by the 2019 feature film of the same name starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Fox, then this riveting best seller is for you. Lawyer and author Bryan Stevenson recounts his experience founding the Equal Justice Initiative as he works across decades to exonerate death row inmates who have been wrongfully convicted. The book focuses on Walter McMillian, convicted for a 1986 murder with flimsy evidence and testimony. Stevenson maps the fortitude necessary to combat a justice system that’s often brutally unfair. Just Mercy has over 17,000 five-star reviews on Amazon. If you love this book, you’ll also love these true crime documentaries.
4. Invisible by Stephen L. Carter (2018)
If you loved the stories in Hidden Figures, then you’ll appreciate this book, which details the triumph of another fascinating and forgotten Black woman. Stephen L. Carter tells the story of his grandmother, Eunice Carter, the young lawyer who was integral in the conviction of the notorious gangster Lucky Luciano. This is one of those crime books you won’t be able to put down as it takes you through a family’s history. The cultural milieu of 1930s New York serves as the background for a gripping legal thriller about taking down the American mafia. You’ll find yourself transported to a different time. Prefer listening to crime stories? These are the best true crime podcasts to listen to right now.
5. Unbelievable by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong (2018)
First released as A False Report in 2018, this harrowing true story of rape in America was adapted the following year into the Netflix series Unbelievable, which stars Toni Collette and Merritt Wever. The book reports on a 2008 sexual assault in which the victim was wrongfully accused of filing a false report and offers an inside look at the procedures of investigating rapes, particularly across state lines. You’ll find a disturbing story about the unfair bias against victims of rape. Solving the cases, and linking them, hinges on state-of-the-art forensics. Here are more forensic cases that stumped investigators.
6. Furious Hours by Casey Cep (2020)
The reverend at the center of Casey Cep’s true crime investigation may have been one of the most notorious American murderers, but he was never convicted, despite taking out multiple life insurance policies on relatives who frequently turned up dead in the 1970s. The book starts there, but once the reverend is shot by another relative at the funeral of his stepdaughter (who he was suspected of killing), the story turns to the trial of the shooter and the famous author in the audience during the trial: Harper Lee. The story eventually settles on an examination of Lee, who wrote the most-loved novel in America, To Kill a Mockingbird, and who helped Truman Capote with research for In Cold Blood, one of the most chilling books about murder. Furious Hours is a best-selling Southern Gothic tour de force for followers of Harper Lee and the reclusive author’s obsessions—including a book she was writing, titled The Reverend.
7. The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (2010)
This 2010 best seller follows the story of two young men growing up in the same area of Baltimore who have the same name but whose lives follow hugely divergent paths. The author, Wes Moore, became a Rhodes Scholar and White House Fellow with a trail of distinguished accomplishments, while the other Wes Moore ends up with a tragically different life. Moore’s book examines the relationship he has with the man who shares his name and who became his friend while serving a life sentence in prison.
8. The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg (2020)
Emma Copley Eisenberg’s The Third Rainbow Girl dives into the 1980 murder of two female hitchhikers who were on the way to a festival called the Rainbow Gathering. Thirteen years went by without a conviction. In 1993, one man was imprisoned and later released when another confessed. Eisenberg moved to the area of West Virginia where the murders occurred to investigate the murders and examine how they affected a small Appalachian community. If you read Hillbilly Elegy, you may appreciate Eisenberg’s more complex look at Appalachia through her depiction of gender and class as each relates to location and history.
9. American Predator by Maureen Callahan (2019)
In one of the most chilling books about murder, Maureen Callahan investigates the terrifying crimes of Israel Keys, a little-known but horrifying 21st-century serial killer. Keys’s thorough body-disposal methods, planted “kill kits” in remote locations, and a willingness to travel great distances to find victims made him incredibly difficult to track. He was eventually caught, and Callahan dives into the detective work that stopped him—and how he was able to commit so many crimes before it did.
10. Columbine by Dave Cullen (2009)
The Columbine high school shooting rocked the nation in 1999 and unfortunately seemed to herald an epidemic in America. Journalist Dave Cullen spent nearly ten years poring over documents and evidence, trying to make sense of a crime that was nonsensical—and unthinkable—and writing one of the best true crime books to date. Cullen takes readers into the investigation and its many missteps to put together a narrative and time frame for the mass shooting. He interviews survivors and delves into the psychology of the killers in a riveting analysis of the desperate tragedy.
11. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)
Truman Capote fathered the true crime genre with the 1965 publication of In Cold Blood, considered a masterpiece and one of the best true crime books of all time. The story reads like a novel even though it’s a journalistic account. Capote relays the events of a horrific murder that took place on a farm in Kansas in the late 1950s. The book is filled with suspense and despair as it captures the horror of a meaningless crime and its aftermath.
12. Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (1996)
Throughout his decades-long career as a member of the FBI’s serial crime unit, John Douglas interviewed such notorious criminals as John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson. In fact, the Jack Crawford character in the Hannibal Lector novels is based on him. In Mindhunter, one of the most popular serial killer books, he and coauthor Mark Olshaker tell the stories of Douglas’s time as a hunter of hunters. The book pairs nicely with the Netflix series of the same name.
13. The Adventurer’s Son by Roman Dial (2020)
Accomplished mountaineer Roman Dial tells his own story in a memoir that recounts the loss of his son in 2014. Cody Roman Dial was 27 years old when he left for a hiking trip in the Costa Rican jungle and never returned. Authorities suspected murder and foul play. Dial tells the harrowing, heartrending story of his investigation into his son’s fate in this unputdownable tragic tale that elucidates a father’s guilt for encouraging his son to go out and explore.
14. She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (2019)
In She Said, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey recount their experience as the two reporters who broke the major story about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuses. They describe their grueling process of investigation and bringing the story to light while powerful men fought to keep it hidden. They also highlight the brave women who came forward and the ripple effects that their work had throughout society during the following months. If you liked Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill book, podcast, or documentary TV series, you’ll love this companion to the stories and history of the #MeToo movement.
15. The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott (2019)
This little-known Prohibition story follows George Remus, a massively successful bootlegger who, by 1921, owned 35 percent of the United States’ liquor, and the investigator who sought to take him down. Karen Abbott, the author of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, makes the murderous historical tale read like a Great Gatsby–style novel.
16. Wise Guy by Nicholas Pileggi (1985)
Fans of Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed film Goodfellas will go wild for the true story the book is based on. Nicholas Pileggi’s riveting look at the inner world of the mafia is a genuine page-turner as it follows the life of Henry Hill, former mob man. Pileggi takes you into Hill’s childhood: He started in 1955 as a petty criminal for a major crime family and worked his way up through the ranks. Eventually, he ends up in the Witness Protection Program and sings like a bird. He helped convict other mobsters and shared the tale with Pileggi. This is one of the best true crime books for readers who appreciate shocking revelations about criminality and American murderers.
17. The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum (2010)
Deborah Blum’s spine-tingling historical nonfiction book tells the story of poison. Set during the Jazz Age, it takes readers on a tour of poison science through the eyes of medical examiners as they try to figure out how poisons work and kill. In a time of burgeoning chemical sciences and no regulations, cosmetics and household products could be deadly. Reading quite like a mystery novel, this is science writing at its finest. If you enjoyed Mary Roach’s autopsy best seller, Stiff, this book should be right up your alley.
18. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003)
This best-selling book tells the chilling tale of the serial killer who overtook the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Erik Larson’s cunning and readable book tells the nerve-racking story of H.H. Holmes, who pretended to be a doctor and lured victims to their death. Alternating chapters tell the story of Daniel Burnham, the architect in charge of building the sprawling fair, which was supposed to be an ode to modern times and industry. Holmes managed to exploit conditions to murder up to 200 people, many of them young women, and his psychopathy is reflected here, in one of the best true crime books you can find.
19. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (2017)
In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann highlights a series of murders in the 1920s that targeted Oklahoma’s Osage Indian Nation, whose members had recently fallen into massive amounts of money when oil was discovered on their land. Even scarier: People who tried to investigate the crimes were murdered as well. Grann chronicles how the fledgling FBI first botched the case, then got its act together and worked with the Osage Nation to investigate the crimes. They used an undercover team that included one of the first Native American agents in the bureau.
20. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale (2009)
It’s one of those true crime books with a plot that reads like a detective novel. In 1860, Inspector Jonathan Whicher is called to investigate the death of a child in Victorian England. Not only did Whicher suspect foul play, but he also suspected that the child’s family was behind it. Author Kate Summerscale unravels the investigation for a modern audience and helps recount an early real-life inspiration for today’s best-known fictional detectives.
21. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer (1979)
Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize for this masterpiece about law and order in America. It follows the story of a Utah murderer, Gary Gilmore, convicted of killing two men during a robbery in 1976. Mailer follows the aftermath of Gilmore’s conviction. The condemned man fights to be killed as soon as possible. Mailer dives into the stories of those embroiled in the conviction and Gilmore’s fight to die. The violent story is a page-turner based on research, interviews, and documents that all try to get as close as possible to the truth. If you like crime spree films like Badlands, this is the book for you.
22. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1976)
Written by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the Charles Manson murder case, Helter Skelter takes readers through the disturbing crime, the trial, and the conviction. One of the most popular true crime books ever written, it’s unnerving and terrifying until the very end. Manson was diabolical and his crimes unthinkable, with links to his bizarre cult in 1960s California. The book examines the dark horror that often hides in the underbelly of America.
23. The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber (2013)
Charles Graeber tells the horrifying tale of Charlie Cullen, a nurse responsible for murdering up to 400 of the patients he was assigned to care for before finally being arrested in 2003. Graeber diligently researches the story to put together the crimes and circumstances that finally led to Cullen’s conviction. It’s a harrowing read that follows the detective’s investigation and offers what the best of true crime books always do: an inside look into the world in which the crimes take place. This tome could also qualify as one of the scariest books of all time.
24. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe (2019)
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe explores a single 1972 abduction and how it illustrates the tension present in Northern Ireland in the late 20th century. A mother of ten was abducted from her home in an act of terror by the Irish Republican Army, a political group striving to end British rule in Northern Ireland. And when the woman’s bones resurfaced in 2003, so did the tensions and the mystery. If you’re a budding amateur detective, check out these mystery book series that will keep you guessing.
25. The Innocent Man by John Grisham (2006)
Former lawyer John Grisham is famous for his legal thrillers. But in his first foray into nonfiction, he takes on a real case, one with tragic circumstances. He follows the story of an up-and-coming baseball star accused and then convicted of rape and murder. But the man is innocent. Grisham’s best seller tells the story of how a wrongly accused man can end up the victim of the justice system.