Denise Mina: my favourite true crime books
Multi-award-winning crime writer Denise Mina’s latest novel The Long Drop is a masterpiece in suspense, based on the true story of one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers. We asked Denise to share the true crime books that had influenced her latest novel.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Clutter family of Kansas lived in a remote farmhouse and were rumoured to have a safe full of money. Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, two roaming ex-cons, broke in to steal the money but were enraged when they found nothing and murdered the entire family.
Capote’s went down to cover the case and developed a relationship with Perry Smith that grew so intense that he was the only person Perry asked to attend his execution.
Capote wrote the true story as a novel, with dialogue and internal monologues, multiple points of view and first-person sensations. He called this ‘The New Journalism’. Capote was a great self-publicist but, in this instance, he wasn’t overstating his own significance. He really did invent a genre.
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
In 1971 Rule volunteered on a suicide crisis hotline in Seattle. Ted Bundy was a fellow volunteer with a young conservative law student. The series of sadistic abductions and murders of young women in the Pacific North West of America had not even been recognised as the work of one man yet, many of the bodies were yet to be found. Bundy and Rule became friends and when Bundy was charged with the horrific murders, she could not believe he was guilty.
The book charts Bundy’s increasingly frenzied serial killer career and Rule’s own reconnection with him. During his various trials, escapes and his final execution in Florida she was in contact with him and slowly came to understand that the overwhelming evidence of his guilt was not a fabrication at all.
Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn
The story of Fred and Rosemary West is probably the true crime story that most of us don’t want to know more about. Ugly people hurting children in a suburban setting. But Gordon Burn did an extraordinary thing: by taking the low art form of true crime and writing the story in a high literary style, he engages the reader on so many more levels than gore or thrill seeking. He uses operatic reprises and linguistic techniques to give us an understanding of the Wests’ thinking patterns, shows the slow decline into brutality and offers a genuine glimpse into a degraded world. Half of the tension comes from the desire to look away, which, as he points out, must have been what the many witnesses around them felt.
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
Garry Gilmore’s rein of terror in Utah became a blueprint for every crime fiction story of a girl and a boy driving around and shooting people. Gilmore requested execution by firing squad. Mailer’s exhaustive but hugely engaging history of Gilmore’s life the world, his string of murders and his relationship with Nicole Baker. Won the Pulitzer in 1981.
A brilliant companion piece to this is by Gilmore’s younger brother, Mikal Gilmore, who was a Rolling Stone journalist. In Shot in the Heart he explores not only the immediate family background but also the bizarre history of bloodletting in Mormon Utah.
Killing for Company by Brian Masters
Brian Masters book about the serial killer Dennis Nilsen is both insightful and heartbreaking. Over a period of fifteen years, civil servant Nilsen murdered young men and kept their bodies in his flat, dressing them up, sleeping with them, chatting to them and finally flushing their dismembered bodies down the toilet. In a series of interviews with Nilsen and his family, Masters details his childhood and his time in the army, looking for clues about how Nilsen embarked on his murderous career.
Masters’ great skill is following the evidence without embellishment and never trying to shoe-horn in cheap mortal lessons.
What are your favourite true crime books? Let us know in the comments below – and click here to read a chapter from Denise Mina’s latest book, The Long Drop.