As anyone who’s listened to Serial, watched OJ: Made in America, or encountered another long-form true crime story can tell you, there’s nothing quite like a well-reported account of a heinous act. Even when they meander, the stakes are rarely less than life and death, and audiences flock to see the (hopefully cathartic) conclusion.
Since movies, TV shows, and podcasts are all the rage, one may forget about the woefully undervalued true crime book. From Janet Malcolm’s foundational work exploring the inescapably voyeuristic nature of journalism to the case-breaking writing of Michelle McNamara, the medium is heavy with undeniable giants.
Every S Town lover and Making a Murderer fan should make sure to check out at least a few seminal true crime writings, as they set the standard for enthralling true crime reportage.
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Coming directly from a first-hand expert, John Douglas and Mark Olshaker’s Mindhunter tracks the early days of the FBI’s serial crimes unit from the vantage of one of its founders. Douglas, the retired agent at the center of the book, spent years profiling dangerous offenders in an effort to develop an understanding of their thinking and behavioral patterns.
Among Douglas's subjects were Ed Kemper - who tormented the Santa Cruz, CA area for years - and Wayne Williams, who likely claimed the lives of somewhere in the range of 23-29 people between 1979 and 1981, including some children. The methods Douglas and his colleagues derived from their research helped form the practice of criminal profiling, which aims to assist law enforcement by creating manifests of likely personality traits culprits exhibit prior to the compilation of definitive suspect lists.
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The Stranger Beside Me is basically a religious tome in the true crime field. Reported by Ann Rule, it tracks her relationship with Ted Bundy, whom she knew personally just before the start of his grisley spree. Rule comes from a family with deep ties to law enforcement and had worked as a police officer herself, but she crossed paths with the young monster while she was a student and budding writer at the University of Washington.
Part of what distinguishes the book from other retrospective works like Mindhunter or Helter Skelter is its in-the-moment tension. Initially, Rule recounts how she resisted the notion that Bundy - her former coworker at a suicide-prevention center - could have any connection to the serial slayings of young women in their area. Gradually, Rule comes to confront his likely guilt, and it’s the way in which she grapples with their relationship that elevates The Stranger Beside Me to true greatness.
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Helter Skelter - Curt Gentry and Vincent Bugliosi’s account of the terror Charles Manson and company reigned upon late '60s Los Angeles - stands as one of the few true crime accounts written by a first-hand expert on the subject. Bugliosi earned that distinction by prosecuting the cult leader and some of his prominent followers while serving in the LA County District Attorney’s Office.
The myth that’s grown around Manson since his conviction is largely due to Helter Skelter, which paints the cult leader as the dark side of Hippy-era California's "peace and love" culture. Even in the 21st century, the Manson family’s dark appeal continues to serve as adaptation-fodder, as is evidenced by their confirmed appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
As of 2019, Helter Skelter still stands as the best-selling true crime work of all time.
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Michelle McNamara’s indelible work on the Golden State Killer’s (GSK) case wrapped up with a much-hoped-for ending in 2018. Shortly after McNamara’s untimely passing - but in advance of the release of I’ll Be Gone In the Dark - Joseph James DeAngelo, the perp alternately known as the Original Night Stalker and the Visalia Ransacker, was arrested in connection to the crimes.
The book tracks DeAngelo's decades-long spree during which he routinely broke into suburban California homes, stole valuables, and viciously had his way with the residents.
Much of the police’s difficulty apprehending DeAngelo stemmed from his periods of dormancy and tendency to strike in disparate areas throughout the sprawling Western coast. DeAngelo’s identity finally came to light by way of a DNA match established through a geneology site using physical evidence from a GSK site in Ventura.
Despite the ethical questions this posed regarding DNA-profiling services and law enforcement, DeAngelo’s arrest is notable not only for closing the door on one of California's greatest unsolved serial cases, but also for revealing nuanced aspects of DeAngelo’s biography. A former police officer and Vietnam veteran, it’s now suspected that much of his methodology was derived directly from his professional life.