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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.

true crime booksIn 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.

best true crime booksThe 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.

true crime booksHappy 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.

true crime booksThe 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.

true crime booksKilling 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.

Denise Mina

After a peripatetic childhood in Glasgow, Paris, London, Invergordon, Bergen and Perth, Denise Mina left school at 16 before doing her law degree at Glasgow University. She subsequently studied for a PhD at Strathclyde. Her first novel, Garnethill, was published in 1998 and won the CWA John Creasey Dagger for Best First Crime Novel.

She has published 12 novels including the Garnethill series, Paddy Meehan and Alex Morrow series.  She has been nominated for many prizes including the CWA Gold Dagger and has won the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award twice. In addition to novels, Denise has also written plays and graphic novels including the graphic novel adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In 2014, she was inducted into the Crime Writers’ Association Hall of Fame and was a judge for the Bailey’s Prize. She has also presented TV and radio programmes as well as appearing regularly in the media. She lives and works in Glasgow.

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1 Comment

    If anybody reading this hasn’t yet read Denise’s book, get it now, and read it. A wonderful fictionalisation of the true story of a Glaswegian multiple murderer. In a similar vein, I would recommend the writing of Eoin McNamee, whose fictional re-workings of true cases are done with immense style.

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