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Fascinating True Crime Documentaries or Books?
August 24, 2014 7:30 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for recommendations for documentaries about true crime cases.

I am especially interested in documentaries (can be TV programs) that delve into the psychological aspects of the crimes. An element of mystery is good too- I enjoy watching the Dateline and 48 Hour Mystery shows, as well as stuff on the ID channel (although that is a bit cheesy) so if you have recommendations for good episodes for those I am interested.

I have watched almost everything about Aileen Wuornos, the Cleveland Kidnappings, and the Fritzl case. I've seen some of Warner Herzog's documentaries- the one about the death penalty case.

I am also interested in really good true crime books- well-written, researched and in-depth.

I am most interested in non-fiction, but will consider fiction if you think it's really great.
posted by bearette to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
 


The Imposter! Background reading -- summary, a grown European man impersonates a missing 13 year old boy from Texas, to the point where he is sent back to live with the family.
posted by foxfirefey at 7:45 PM on August 24


Tabloid by Errol Morris.
posted by bcwinters at 7:46 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson tells the story of the serial killer at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, with a good bit of background on the Fair and the machinations that went into planning it.

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon of The Wire is an account of a year in the homicide unit of the Baltimore Police Department.
posted by Quietgal at 7:48 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


My Dark Places by James Ellroy is the true story of his mother's (unsolved) murder, and how it set him on his path to being a crime writer (with very fucked up issues around women, but that's another story).

I could have sworn that one of the prime-time crime investigation shows also devoted an episode to the case around the time the book was published, but I can't seem to find it online.
posted by scody at 7:56 PM on August 24


Madness in the Fast Lane is a very Dateline / 48 Hours-ish documentary that involves identical twin sisters with severe mental health issues, extensive footage of their attempted suicides together on a highway, an investigation into the homicide one of them was involved in subsequently, and a lengthy discussion of the related criminal case and the psychiatric diagnoses that came into it.

I am really not saying it's something anyone needs to watch, but I'd never seen anything like it, and it seems to fit your criteria pretty well.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:05 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


My mom read these all the time so these are what I remember her reading:
Everything Ann Rule.
Old copies of True Detective
The Night Stalker book
Mindhunter
And everything about the Son of Sam

She's moved onto Scandinavian murders now, but those are what I recommend.

I've personally read In the garden of good and evil and The Monster of Florence and both were good.
posted by fiercekitten at 8:11 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Blow, the book the movie is based on is fascinating. It's about organized(ish) crime, not serial killing but its a really interesting look into how normal people become criminals.
posted by fshgrl at 8:13 PM on August 24


A Death in White Bear Lake by Barry Siegel (unless you are not okay with reading about child abuse). Very into the psychological aspects of the killers, the surrounding town, and the authorities.

The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr--interweaves the title case and the career of Alexandre Lacassagne, who is considered one of the fathers of criminology.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale. The case that gave the world the idea of a police detective--and the idea of a sinister detective.

Death in the City of Light by David King--I haven't read this one yet, but it's supposed to be very good. It's about a serial killer in Nazi-occupied Paris.
posted by Hypatia at 8:16 PM on August 24


Seconding My Dark Places. There was also a documentary produced around the same time by the BBC called Feast of Death about Ellroy, his mother's murder and his writing.
posted by coleboptera at 8:25 PM on August 24


Capturing the Friedmans is a very fine documentary about a father and son accused of sexual abuse in Great Neck, Long Island. This one might be of special interest because the son, Jesse Friedman, is now in the news from time to time because of his effort to clear his name (he may well be innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted).

Cries Unheard is about the case of Mary Bell, an English girl who murdered a child when she was only ten years old. It's well-written in a clinical and unsensationalist style, and examines the phenomenon of children who commit homicides.

For a change of pace, you might want to check out Classic Crimes by William Roughead. It's written in a sort of high Edwardian style that most of the true crime buffs among us won't expect, so it's a refreshing change. Roughead's writing style is a lot of florid fun, probably even for people who aren't genre buffs.
posted by holborne at 8:40 PM on August 24


Seconding Tabloid. The Thin Blue Line is another Errol Morris documentary, which really pioneered the true crime documentary. I'd also recommend 30 for 30: The Price of Gold, which is about Tonya Harding. All three are on Netflix.
posted by catwash at 8:53 PM on August 24


Crime After Crime is a stunning documentary about what is likely the most sympathetic subject of one of these films that you'll ever see; it's now available on Netflix Streaming. I've seen a lot of this type of documentary, but this is one of the few that has made me cry.

HBO has done some great work in this area: The Cheshire Murders and There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane are both haunting, but for very different reasons.

Longform.org is a great source of (mostly) true-crime writing; sort through the crime category, or follow the mystery and murder tags, though you'll have to watch out for the occasional piece of fiction. Or search for good true-crime writers like Skip Hollandsworth.
posted by carrienation at 8:56 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


The 2004 French miniseries Death on the Staircase (aka The Staircase, aka Soup├žons) is excellent. In 2001, American mystery author Michael Peterson called 911 to report that his wife Kathleen had gotten drunk and fallen down the stairs--he had found her unconscious. She was dead by the time the ambulance arrived and Peterson was later arrested for her murder.

If you don't know anything about the case, I encourage you not to read any more about it before watching...it's very well done and quite riveting.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:30 PM on August 24 [6 favorites]


So many great suggestions. Seconding Death on the Staircase. I loved it, really great though it is very long and I had to watch all the episodes all at once. Paradise Lost, the first documentary about the West Memphis 3 was also very compelling.

Also seconding Anne Rule - especially her book on the Green River killer.

You can also find a lot of crime documentaries here. I'm about to watch Norway Massacre: The Killer's Mind.
posted by microcarpetus at 10:10 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


An oldie but goodie, Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson, about murder among some high-society Houstonians in the early 1970s.

In the early 1980s the story was turned in to a TV mini-series called "Murder in Texas" but this TV version was based on a different book by another writer.
posted by fuse theorem at 10:44 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


You've got so many great suggestions above. Because, like you, I really like the psychological aspects of true crime - I have to tell you about one that has stood out from so many that I have read:

True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel

This is the story of Christian Longo, who was convicted of killing his wife and children in Portland, OR and his fleeing to Mexico. While in Mexico, he assumes the identity of a NY Times reporter...a reporter who actually exists. How that real reporter (who ended up writing this book) gets pulled into this murder mystery, and how it impacts him with his own problems with being on the up-and-up is absolutely fascinating.

Highly recommended!
posted by Gerard Sorme at 10:57 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure if this is really your thing, but there's a show on HULU named Watching the Detectives that is basically true crime stories narrated by the real detectives that worked them. The Brooklyn accents alone make the show worth it. :-)
posted by xammerboy at 11:01 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


Sorry to double-dip into the thread, but I wanted to mention that if you want to read True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa you might want to do it soon before the movie comes out. I read this book in about 2006 and found out a few months ago they are making a big movie from this book titled "True Story" with a very good cast of stars. I mention this so you can read the book before they ruin it with the movie (as they so often do).
posted by Gerard Sorme at 11:13 PM on August 24


Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me about Ted Bundy was terrifying.

Devil In the White City was good, too.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:08 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]




I am so adding everything in this thread to my List.

Anyway, my two favorite true crime books are Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore (Gary Gilmore's brother) and A Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz in which the author solves her own attempted murder. Both are amazing.

As to documentaries I think the good old Cold Case Files TV show was great (not to be confused with the crappy fictional Cold Case).
posted by Jess the Mess at 5:48 AM on August 25


I can give a mild thumbs-up to this book: People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo--and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up. The book gives an interesting portrait of some aspects of Japanese culture that are probably not widely known outside of Japan (e.g., the whole "hostessing" phenomenon, and the surprising fact that Japanese police are laughably incompetent -- they can't solve any crime more complex than jaywalking).

The major downside is that the book is too long. Also, the title is completely ridiculous (there is no mention anywhere in the book of people "eating darkness", whatever that might even mean).
posted by akk2014 at 5:50 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I just saw Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart over the weekend. I thought it was pretty good as someone who was almost entirely unfamiliar with the case (my only exposure was the movie To Die For).
posted by Green With You at 7:26 AM on August 25


These all look great- will most definitely be checking them out.

I'm currently into watching Dateline mystery and 48 hours on youtube, as I do not have netflix. If anyone has particular episodes of these they'd recommend, I'd be interested in that too.

thanks!
posted by bearette at 7:26 AM on August 25


"Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence" by Bill James, is a fascinating re-examination of many famous crimes since the 1700s and how the media have covered/influenced them and the history of crime. It's quite witty, but serious, and includes a lot of surprising facts about crimes you thought you knew all about. A terrific read.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:29 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Maybe I'm just being contrary, but I found Devil in the White City to be supremely dull. It's mostly about the tiresome drama of the two landscape architects who developed the 1893 Fair, with some schlocky serial killer drama tacked on to jazz it up. I can't shake the feeling that it originally started out as a clunky biography of the architects and the fair, and was sent back by the editor for more flair.

I quite enjoyed The Man in the Rockefeller Suit and the more recent personal account Blood Will Out, both about the bizarre Clark Rockefeller impostor saga.
posted by demons in the base at 8:31 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


I recommend Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi. Bugliosi was the prosecuting attorney in the Charles Manson murders. He comes across as a self-promoter, but he really did his homework, and the detail in his book is fascinating.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:34 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


seconding Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore -- it's incredible.
posted by scody at 9:10 AM on August 25


Columbine by Dave Cullen is a really great book.
posted by backwards guitar at 9:14 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


How has no one mentioned In Cold Blood by Truman Capote?

I'd poke around the PBS Frontline site - off the top of my head I remember a few cases about people who were wrongly accused of a crime, like the Norfolk Four.

I asked a similar question about longform true crime that you might be interested in checking out.
posted by desjardins at 9:25 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]


Midnight in Peking is awesome.

Death in the City of Light may be the creepiest serial killer story ever.
posted by BibiRose at 9:26 AM on August 25


Seconding A Strange Piece of Paradise too. Amazing book. There was a TV episode about the author's investigation into the crime but I can't seem to locate in online right now.

I am also very fond of Melanie Thernstrom's book The Dead Girl. It is by no means typical crime writing, but a very personal account what happened when Thernstrom's best friend was murdered. Thernstrom also wrote Halfway Heaven, about a murder that took place at Harvard. (I say I am fond of The Dead Girl, but both books are pretty depressing to read compared to the Ann Rule/Gregg Olson model of crime writing. They're a little too real and sad.)

By way of contrast, Vincent Bugliosi's writing has a very weird "pop" to it. But the cases he chooses are undoubtedly fascinating.
posted by BibiRose at 9:47 AM on August 25


The Blooding is an older book by Joseph Wambaugh about a case in England which was on the cutting edge of DNA/Genetic crime investigation. It's a nail biter of a story, and has significant resonance now, as we think more and more about privacy and the 'police state'.
posted by anastasiav at 10:37 AM on August 25


48 Hours Mystery: Nightmare in Napa is a good one.
posted by misseva at 11:18 AM on August 25


A lot has been written about the West Memphis Three.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 1:24 PM on August 25


Brian Masters' Killing For Company, about the Dennis Nilsen case, is a fascinating exploration of a deeply warped psyche and the justifications that accompanied a horrifying crime spree.

For a more counter-culturally informed telling of the Manson case than Helter Skelter, see Ed Sanders' The Family. The first printing includes a chapter on the Process Church that was censored in later editions.

And although you haven't asked: there are no good books about the Black Dahlia case, but Larry Harnisch's website is worth visiting.
posted by Scram at 2:54 PM on August 25


Green River Killer
posted by Artw at 5:21 PM on August 25


I came here to rec -- so I guess second -- Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me. It's particularly interesting because the author received the contract to write about a series of murders before her friend and former co-worker Ted Bundy was identified as the culprit and a big part of the book is about her struggle to reconcile the friend she thought she knew with the remorseless murderer.
posted by bettafish at 5:21 PM on August 25


I have watched almost everything about Aileen Wuornos, the Cleveland Kidnappings, and the Fritzl case.

There are significant cases of a similar vein in the UK that might interest you. Fred and Rose West come to mind, and they always make me think of the Jamie Bulger murder. Harold Shipman is possibly the world record holder for serial killers, so there's that.

Anyway, all three have been covered in BBC documentaries. I can find the Wests, a Shipman thing, and a piece on Bulger's killers. The West one is the best and will probably be of the most interest to you.

Oh ans also this is worth a watch just for the bonkers factor, but it does cover a complex murder as well.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:20 PM on August 26


Yet another vote for anything by Ann Rule. I've also gotten into Kathryn Casey's and M. William Phelps's true crime books.
posted by SisterHavana at 1:47 PM on August 26


Completely forgot about Columbine by Dave Cullen, so I'm definitely giving a big second to that rec. That's one of the best true crime books I've ever read, and will completely change the way you view the Columbine shootings (spoiler: everything you thought you knew is wrong).
posted by holborne at 9:30 AM on August 27


And the Sea Will Tell, by Vincent Bugliosi
Fatal Vision by Joe McGinnis
posted by cherrybounce at 12:45 PM on August 30


Thanks everyone. I will be looking into all of these. I am already 75% through The Stranger Beside Me. Not recommended reading for insomniacs who are up in the middle of the night (me, a few nights ago) , but otherwise very gripping.
posted by bearette at 7:08 AM on September 3


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