True crime has fascinated writers for decades, creating some of the most haunting works of non-fiction that offer detailed, intelligent and thoughtful insights into the most extraordinary cases and killers.
From well-known stories that splashed headlines across the globe to personal accounts of family victims leaving unanswered questions, what is most terrifying of all is they’re true.
Here are our unmissable top picks of the genre.
20 of the best true crime books:
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
Los Angeles in 1969 and seven people are found brutally murdered. In the months that followed, the American people watched in horror as the killers were caught and convicted. Prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi held a unique position within the trial enabling him to view the case from an insider’s perspective, and he tells-all in this unique account. As shocking as it is disturbing, true crime fans will be hooked.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
This classic non-fiction novel first published in 1966 made Truman Capote’s name as one of America’s most outstanding writers of his generation. Detailing the 1959 murders of the Herbert Clutter family in a small farming community in Kansas, the account focuses on young killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock and is one of the most remarkable books of the genre. A masterclass in true crime writing.
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
Crime writer Ann Rule was investigating one of the darkest unsolved mass-murder cases in America when she discovered the murderer was closer to her than she could ever imagine. This 1980s autobiographical and biographical true crime account has been subsequently revised to include details from women who have since come forward with stories of their encounters and near-misses with the man who was found to be the killer, Ted Bundy. A haunting read.
The People v O J Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin
The trial of former O J Simpson took place over 10 months in 1995, as he was tried and acquitted on two accounts of murder. It was a case stooped in controversy and this definitive account tells the whole story from the murders to the trial that shook the world. If you’ve seen the major BBC TV series you’ll be fascinated by the insight Toobin provides – complete with his own brand of cynicism.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
In June 1860, a three-year-old child was brutally murdered in a horrifying crime. Scotland Yard sent Inspector Jonathan Whicher, one of the country’s then only detectives, who very quickly believed the unbelievable: that someone within the family was responsible. This book eagerly explores how the killing has influenced modern detective work and inspired a generation of writers from Charles Dickens to Arthur Conan Doyle. A must-read for historical crime fans.
My Dark Places by James Ellroy
The deeply personal story of James Ellroy, one of America’s most notable crime writers, who teams up with a homicide detective to investigate the murder of his own mother, Jean Ellroy. At the time of the murder, in 1958, the killer remained at large and so Ellroy goes back to L.A. thirty-six years later to search for answers of who did it and why. A brave and revealing memoir of loss, violence and redemption.
The Reykjavik Confessions by Simon Cox
‘Over decades and decades in Iceland people have gone missing without anyone finding anything out. They just sort of disappear…’ In 1974, 18-year-old Gudmundur disappeared from a fishing town near Reykjavik, 11 months later another man, Geirfinnur, went missing from south-west Iceland. Both are presumed dead, but their bodies have never been found. This fascinating book, based on a documentary made by BBC journalist Simon Cox, explores why six people admitted to roles in the two murders without being able to remember anything about the crimes. A true story about false memories and murder on a small island.
Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
Retired FBI Special Agent and expert in criminal profiling and behavioural science, John Douglas, lets us inside the FBI elite serial crime unit and into the minds of some of the most dangerous and brutal serial killers in the world, including Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and the Atlanta child murders. Fans of the 2017 Netflix series Mindhunter will be fascinated by this fierce page turner.
The Fact Of A Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
An intellectual and emotional thriller that explores two lives – the life of convicted child killer Ricky Langley and the deeply personal experiences of writer Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, whose dealings with the Langley case unlocked memories of her own traumatic childhood. A brilliant, difficult, uncomfortable and emotionally raw read that explores the lasting effects of offenders on their victims and the meaning of acceptance.
Killing for Company by Brian Masters
Serial killer Dennis Nilsen murdered at least fifteen people before he was arrested in 1983, going on to give a full confession to the police. This frank and detailed study of his killings was written with Nilsen’s full co-operation, giving a unique insight into the disturbing psychology of a mass murderer. Harrowing and heartbreaking, this is a fascinating and informative look at one of the UK’s most notorious killers.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
The Golden State killer was the infamous masked serial rapist and murderer who terrorized California for over a decade. True crime journalist Michelle McNamara explores the facts, police reports, victim interviews and theories and offers a chilling account of a criminal mastermind as she searches for who the killer may be. As much a memoir as it is a procedural, this is a gripping true crime classic which helped unmask the killer himself.
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
The principle of innocent until proven guilty is explored in John Grisham’s first work of non-fiction. His gripping account of a miscarriage of justice details the conviction of Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson, who were charged with the capital murder of cocktail waitress Debra Sue Carter, despite no physical evidence. This is a cautionary story of small-town justice gone awry written with Grisham’s usual flair for narrative, character and detail.
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
Convicted for the murder of two men in 1979, Gary Gilmore was sentenced to death in the U.S. with a likelihood he would receive life imprisonment instead. But Gilmore was determined to die and his fight for execution made him a world-wide criminal celebrity. Based almost entirely on interviews with family and friends of both Gilmore and his victims, the book details every inch of Gilmore’s life, trial and ultimate death. The first book in the true crime genre to win the Pulitzer Prize – and a worthy winner.
The Lost Boy by Duncan Staff
Between July 1963 and October 1965, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley brutally murdered five children in a horrifying case that became known as the Moors Murders. Three of the children were buried in shallow graves on Saddleworth Moor, Yorkshire, another victim was found in their spare room, but the body of the fifth child, Keith Bennett, has never been found. In this new addition of his bestselling book, Duncan Staff presents a compelling theory about the final resting place of the last victim.
Vulgar Favours by Maureen Orth
On the morning of 15 July 1997 Gianni Versace was shot and killed on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion. His killer, Andrew Cunanan, had already killed four other victims and what followed was the largest failed manhunt in U.S. history. Compiled from interviews with over 400 people and thousands of police reports, Orth tells the story of Andrew Cunanan’s obsession with Versace in chilling detail. A must-read for fans of BBC Two series American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
The murder of Maggie Nelson’s Aunt, Jane Mixer, and the trial of her killer, is a deeply personal memoir of a family’s grief that poses important questions about our relationship to violence and our cultural fixation on dead women. Much more than a record of a murder, investigation and trial, this is an intelligent and complex work of profound integrity and would appeal to both true crime fans or Nelson lovers.
Signature Killers by Robert Keppel and William J Birnes
Signature killers leave tell-tale signs, gruesome ‘calling cards’ at the scenes of their crimes that become a synonymous hallmark of their horrific deeds. Sparked by a growing concern over the rise of signature murders, Robert Keppels explores the patterns, compulsions and motives of some of the most infamous signature killers, giving the ultimate insight into the mind of a serial killer. Graphic, fascinating, horrifying and unforgettable – this is a dark and compelling read.
A Very English Scandal by John Preston
Politics and crime collide in this retelling of the 1970s Thorpe affair, where former MP, Jeremy Thorpe, stood trial accused of hiring a hitman to murder his alleged ex-lover, Norman Scott. Thorpe was the first British politician to stand trial for murder and this eye-opening account spans the trial that shook the heart of the establishment. Timely and relevant, this book – the basis for BBC One’s recent drama starring Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw – is brilliantly researched and littered with shocks and surprises, making it a startling page turner.
The Innocent Killer by Michael Griesbach
Steven Avery is the Wisconsin man who spent eighteen years in prison convicted of the violent assault of Penny Beernsten. Two years after he was exonerated, he was arrested for the brutal murder of Teresa Halbach. One of America’s most notorious wrongful convictions, Avery’s case was made famous by the Netflix series Making A Murderer and veteran prosecutor Michael Griesbach examines both trials in this in-depth account. An instant true crime classic.
McMafia by Misha Glenny
Organised crime is part of all of our worlds, from illegal downloads to drugs, phishing scams to people trafficking. In this compelling read, McMafia takes us on a journey around the globe to explore these highly complex crime syndicates and their far-reaching impact. Inspiring a major BBC series, these extraordinary real stories are told with insight from police, victims, politicians and members of the global underworld. A vivid portrayal of the criminal underworld that’s closer to most of us than we think.
There you have it – our pick of the best true crime books. What would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments below…