20 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 thrillers. These real-life stories prove that truth really is stranger—and scarier—than fiction.
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Stranger than fiction
True crime books are definitely having a moment. After all, it’s the ultimate thrill to get wrapped up in a spooky, thought-provoking real-life investigation—without being in any danger, of course! From the Victorian era to today, here are some must-read spine-tingling tales. You can also listen to them through Audible or e-reading platform Libby by OverDrive. Plus, here are some more of the best audiobooks to listen to right now.
Robert Kolker’s acclaimed true crime mystery follows the investigation of a serial killer on Long Island who preyed on young women. Kolker’s account of the crimes and the desperate circumstances of the young girls causes obsession in readers long after they’ve finished reading. Based on exhaustive research, Kolker aims to make sense of the unthinkable crimes. What happened to these young girls? Kolker takes you into their lives and choices so you are haunted by the loss of their lives. If you’re in the mood for more sadness, here’s a list of books sure to make you cry.
The Third Rainbow Girl
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; later, another confessed. Eisenberg moved to the area of West Virginia where the murders occurred to dive into an investigation of the murders and how they affected a small Appalachian community.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe explores a single 1972 abduction and how it illustrates the tension of 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’d rather laugh than be spooked, here are some stories of the dumbest criminals of all time.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
The author of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara, spent years investigating the notorious Golden State Killer. She explored police reports, investigated victims, and relentlessly sought some answers to this devastating crime spree. Tragically, she actually passed away in the midst of writing it, but her life’s work has been hailed as a masterpiece.
Maureen Callahan investigates the terrifying crimes of Israel Keys, a little-known but incredibly deadly 21st-century serial killer. Keys’ thorough body-disposal methods and willingness to travel great distances to find victims made him incredibly difficult to track. He was eventually caught, and Callahan dives into how that happened—and how he was able to commit so many crimes before it did. Here are some unsolved murders that still shock the nation.
The Columbine high school shooting rocked the nation in 1999 and unfortunately seemed to herald an epidemic. Journalist Dave Cullen spent nearly ten years pouring over documents and evidence, trying to make sense of a crime that was nonsensical and unthinkable in one of the best true crime books to date. Cullen’s book takes you into the investigation and its many missteps, to put together a narrative and time frame. Cullen interviews survivors and delves into the psychology of the killers in this riveting analysis of this desperate tragedy.
In Cold Blood
Truman Capote basically invented true crime books with the 1965 publication of this best-seller that’s considered a masterpiece and one of the best true crime books. In Cold Blood 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. If you liked the book, you’ll love the movie. Check out these 50 of the most famous movie quotes of all time.
Explore the book behind the popular Netflix series, written by John Douglas, a retired member of the FBI’s serial crime unit. Throughout his decades-long career, Douglas interviewed such notorious criminals as John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson. Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs was even based on him. In Mindhunter, originally published in 1996, Douglas tells his personal stories of his time as a hunter of hunters. Here are some more of the books behind your favorite TV shows.
The Adventurer’s Son
Accomplished mountaineer Roman Dial tells his own story of the loss of his son in 2014, who at 27 years old went for a hiking trip in the Costa Rican jungle and never returned. Authorities never figured out what happened to him, but they suspected that it had been murder. Dial tells the harrowing story of his investigation of his son’s fate, as well as his own guilt for encouraging his son to go out and explore.
Published in September 2019, She Said is the story of (and by!) Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, 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.
The Ghosts of Eden Park
This little-known Prohibition story of 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 historical tale (spoiler alert: there’s murder) read like a Gatsby-style novel. Love that time period? Check out these things that you never knew happened in 1920.
Nicholas Pileggi’s riveting look at the inner world of the mafia is a page-turner. Martin Scorsese based his acclaimed film Goodfellas on this inside look at the life of Henry Hill, former mob man. Pileggi takes you into Hill’s childhood where he started out as a petty criminal for a major crime family before working his way up. 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 that’s filled with shocking revelations about criminality and life as a wise guy.
The Poisoner’s Handbook
Deborah Blum’s spine-tingling history tells the story of poison. Set during the Jazz Age, she takes you on a tour of poison science through the eyes of medical examiners as they try to figure out how poisons work and kill. Set in a time of burgeoning chemical science, and before any regulation, cosmetics, and household products could be deadly. This is science writing at its finest that reads like a mystery novel.
The Devil in the White City
This is 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 that was supposed to be an ode to modern times and industry. Yet Holmes managed to exploit conditions to murder up to 200 people, many of them young women in one of the best true crime books you can find.
Killers of the Flower Moon
Another little-known 1920s story, Killers of the Flower Moon revisits a series of murders targeting 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. Author David Grann chronicles how a young J. Edgar Hoover helped the fledgling FBI get its act together and work with the Osage Nation to investigate the crimes. Find out these secrets the FBI doesn’t want you to know.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
In what sounds like the plot of a detective novel, but is in fact true, Inspector Jonathan Whicher was called to investigate the death of a child in Victorian England (1860, to be exact). Not only did Whicher suspect foul play, he also suspected that the child’s family was behind it. Author Kate Summerscale unravels the investigation for a modern audience—and helps bring to life an early real-life inspiration for today’s best-known fictional detectives. If you love true crime books, check out these true crime podcasts you should be listening to.
The Executioner’s Song
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. 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 to as close as possible to the truth.
Written by Vince Bugliosi, the prosecutor in the Charles Manson murder case, Helter Skelter takes you through the disturbing crime and the trial and conviction. One of the most popular and best true crime books ever written, it’s unnerving and terrifying until the very end. Manson was diabolical and the 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. Want to read more about seedy towns across the country? Check out the most iconic books set in every state.
The Good Nurse
Charles Graeber tells the horrifying tale of Charlie Cullen—a nurse responsible for murdering up to 300 of the patients he was assigned to care for. Graeber diligently researches the story to put together the crimes and the circumstances which finally led to Cullen’s conviction. It’s a harrowing read that follows the detective’s investigation while offering the best of true crime books—an inside look into the world in which the crimes take place. Really want a good scare? Read up on our list of the scariest books of all time.
The Innocent Man
Former lawyer John Grisham is famous for his legal thriller novels. But in his first foray into non-fiction, he takes on another legal story, 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 bestseller follows the story of how a wrongly-accused man can end up the victim of the justice system. Do these true crime books have you in the mood for more thrillers? Check out this list of the best thriller books of all time.