It seems like everyone is obsessing over all things true crime lately — from binging Making a Murderer on Netflix, to tuning in to the latest S-Town podcast. But true crime has long found a home in novels, where at times reality can seem stranger than fiction.
Whether it’s the true story of a black man infiltrating the KKK (recently adapted into Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman,) or a memoir about working alongside a serial killer at large, here are the top true crime novels of all time:
Party Monster: A Fabulous But True Tale of Murder in Clubland (Formerly Disco Bloodbath) by James St. James
James St. James’s memoir relives his days as a club kid in the 1990s, and how that led him to become the close confidant of Michael Alig, a man convicted of killing a drug dealer known as Angel in 1996. St. James brings you into the heyday of the New York City club scene marked by drugs, sex, music and mayhem that fueled an environment where nothing was too outrageous — not even murder.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
In 1959, four members of the Clutter family, who owned a farm in Kansas, were shot to death in their home. In Cold Blood weaves together the stories of the murderers and the investigators hunting them with interviews with those who knew the victims and the killers. The novel is a true crime classic — it was researched by award-winning novelists Truman Capote and Harper Lee, and its ability to bring every detail of the crime to life revolutionized the true crime novel genre when it was released. Despite the criticism the book has received for adding “color” to some of the factual details to make the book a smoother read, In Cold Blood remains a staple on the book shelves of many true crime enthusiasts.
My Dark Places by James Ellroy
When James Ellroy was 10 years old, his mother was murdered. Although at the time he wouldn’t even admit to liking his mother, the murder weighed heavily on his mind — eventually leading him to drug and alcohol abuse that served as an escape from the pressing need to know who his mother really was. My Dark Places mixes the hard-hitting chronicles of an unsolved mystery with deeply personal confessions, as Ellroy grapples with the impact his mother’s murder had on him.
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
In the 1970s, aspiring crime novelist Ann Rule worked at a suicide hotline with Ted Bundy — a man she would soon consider a friend. It was this friendship that allowed Rule to gain insight on the serial killer’s inner psyche and life during the period of his conviction, trial and execution for the murders of 30 women (though Bundy confessed to the 30 murders, investigators say the number of victims could be much higher). In The Stranger Beside Me, Rule combines her own personal observations about Bundy with in-depth reporting on his crimes to create a vivid and enduring true crime novel.
Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent Into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado
Alfredo Corchado spent his life building a career as a reporter, and eventually ended up as an international correspondent in Mexico for the Dallas Morning News. He reported not only on the country’s budding economy, but also its crumbling rule of law as cartels were overrunning the government with corruption. One night, Corchado received a tip that he could be the next target of the Zetas, a violent paramilitary group — and the man who had reported on the murders of so many others had just 24 hours to save his own life.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
In April 2018, the police finally caught the suspected Golden State Killer — 40 years after the serial killer and rapist’s first attack. For years detectives obsessed over the more than 50 rapes and at least 12 murders, unsuccessfully trying to catch him. But a break in the case came when an investigator matched DNA recovered from a crime scene to the killer’s great-great-great grandparents. True crime journalist Michelle McNamara joined the search 30 years after his final crimes; she too obsessively combed through every bit of information the Internet had to offer about the elusive rapist-turned-murderer. The extensive research and prose she left behind after her tragic passing have been turned into I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a cutting account of a criminal mastermind and the terror he sowed across the state of California.
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma after oil was discovered beneath their land. Then, one by one, the Osage were killed off, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings wound up murdered themselves. As the death toll rose, the newly created FBI took up the case and the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.
Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker
In Robert Kolker’s debut non-fiction book, he explores the lives of five women, all of whom were prostitutes murdered by a serial killer. He explores how the women used the sexual underside of the internet to escape dead-end jobs and bad situations and recounts the authorities’ failure to take their cases seriously, or even solve their murders. Lost Girls is a social critique on how the police and society let these young women down. What makes their stories even more poignant is knowing that the killer is still at large.
The Grim Sleeper: The Lost Women of South Central by Christine Pelisek
Christine Pelisek meticulously details the case of the L.A serial killer called “the Grim Sleeper” as only someone who reported on the case for 10 years could. She named him the Grim Sleeper for his long breaks between victims, all of whom were women of color in poor areas. Pelisek’s book carefully details the lives of each victim and tells a broader story about homicide investigations in neighborhoods ridden with poverty and gang violence. The book reveals the hard truth that often victims found in high-crime areas are neglected by the police and the press — which is likely how a serial killer ran rampant for two decades.
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Byran Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson’s memoir highlights the injustice found in the American justice system as he recounts one particular case he worked on as a young lawyer. During his time at Equal Justice Initiative, he took the case of Walter McMillian, a young black man who was sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman — which he insisted he didn’t commit — that he was having an affair with. The case, which reads like it could be straight out of To Kill a Mockingbird, irreversibly shapes the author’s view of mercy and justice.
Missoula: Rape and Justice in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
Acclaimed investigative journalist Jon Krakauer goes to the University of Montana’s college town of Missoula. The school is known for its tough academics, pastoral surroundings and a massive fan base for the football team, the Grizzlies. But behind the typical trappings of a college community, hides a system that makes it difficult for rape victims to come forward. Krakauer interviews several women in Missoula and chronicles the nights of their rapes; their self-doubt while their cases were going through the justice system and what it cost them to speak out.
Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs by Jim Atkinson and Joe Briggs
In 1980, Candy Montgomery and Betty Gore were two bored housewives in Texas trying to make the best of their mundane suburban lives — until Betty discovered Candy had an affair with her husband, which culminated in a lethal crime scene. Evidence of Love details the struggle of “two desperate housewives,” as Candy’s trial unfolds in national headlines after she pleads not guilty for reasons of self-defense. Based on exclusive interviews with the Montgomery and Gore families, Briggs and Atkins cut through the drama of the case to study the frustrations and unanswered desires of these two women.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson recounts the true tale of the 1893 World’s Fair and a serial killer who set up a fake hotel next to it to lure unsuspecting fairgoers to their death. Larson mixes true history with thrilling suspense to make his research on the fair and the spurious hotel nearby seem like a well-crafted work of fiction. He takes the imposing historical murderer that the Chicago Times-Herald at the time called ”so unthinkable that no novelist would dare to invent such a character,” and contrasts him with the preparations for the lavish World’s Fair to create an enthralling and suspenseful read.
The Dead Girl by Melanie Thernstrom
The Dead Girl, based on Thernstrom’s diary, is the retelling of intimate thoughts and emotions surrounding the murder of her childhood best friend Bibi Lee. After Lee goes missing while jogging in the hills of Oakland with her boyfriend Bradley Page, a colossal search mission ensues. In a state of distress, Thernstrom begins compiling her friend’s letters and poems. When Bibi’s body is discovered five weeks later, Thernstorm begins writing about their lives together. The resulting book weaves the tragic murder with the “the interior lives of young women.”
Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
In Ron Stallworth’s inaugural book and memoir, he recalls his time as the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. When he comes across a classified ad in the local paper about joining the Ku Klux Klan, he responds using his real name while posing as a white man. Stallworth narrates the ensuing undercover investigation into the KKK and draws parallels between the Klan’s stance on immigration and other issues impacting the country with the current era of Donald Trump’s politics. His chilling story was also recently adapted into a major motion picture directed by Spike Lee called BlacKkKlansman.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great by Kate Summerscale
In June of 1860, three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of an outhouse with a slit throat. Inspector Jonathan Whicher, one of the founding members of Scotland Yard, the London Metropolitan Police Service, pursued the case relentlessly — but without sufficient evidence or a confession, the case was only circumstantial, leaving the investigator feeling defeated. The novel features a fast-paced narrative and brutal retelling of the case to create a dark fable that spawned a TV series under the same name.
Correction, August 13
The original version of this story misstated the year of the Clutter family murders recounted in Capote’s In Cold Blood. It was 1959, not 1956.
Correction, August 29
The original version of this story misstated author Jon Krakauer’s name. It is Jon Krakauer, not John Krakauer.