If Coetzee wrote true crime, how would it look?
June 9, 2010 1:17 PM   Subscribe

Summer Reading-Filter: intelligent true crime? Essentially, I want all the gruesome pleasure of the content, without having to cringe through a sensationalistic treatment thereof.

AskMe was great when I asked this question about "literary page-turners". Now I'm looking for some literary true crime (murder in particular, but I'm not picky).

By "literary" I just mean well-written and smart. As a genre, true crime tends to be crass and tabloidy, and I want to avoid that.

In the past, I've enjoyed nonfiction crime novels like The Executioner's Song (and In Cold Blood, though I liked that less); however, right now I'm more interested in conventional genre entries like Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me--which I ate up despite its embarrassing cover.

So: what else out there is grim but classy? Thanks!
posted by Beardman to Media & Arts (49 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
There's always the classics.
posted by Artw at 1:25 PM on June 9, 2010

Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven". Great, tight writing, scarily crazy Mormons, lots of useful history... loved it.
posted by julthumbscrew at 1:30 PM on June 9, 2010

Have you read From Hell?
posted by shakespeherian at 1:31 PM on June 9, 2010

I'd recommend Killing for Company (about Dennis Nilsen) and The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer both by Brian Masters. I think both of those are a cut above the couple of books I've read by Ann Rule.

Brian Masters also wrote She Must Have Known (about Rosemary West) but I personally wouldn't recommend that one.

The Fred & Rosemary West case is very strange and the best book I've read about their crimes was An Evil Love by Geoffrey Wansell.
posted by selton at 1:35 PM on June 9, 2010

I liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a lot.
posted by kylej at 1:38 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dragon tattoo is great, but not true.

I really like Devil in the white City.
posted by purenitrous at 1:41 PM on June 9, 2010

"Under the Banner of Heaven" is a good recommendation, seconding that.
posted by bradbane at 1:46 PM on June 9, 2010

The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

It's about a crime, and gives you the details, but is well written, and is more about the absurdity of the Italian justice system, and upon extension, the desire of humans to believe in far fetched conspiracy rather than plain truth.
posted by codacorolla at 1:51 PM on June 9, 2010

The Poisoner's Handbook. Disclosure: she's a former prof of mine, but she's really good (a Pulitzer Prize winner).
posted by Madamina at 1:54 PM on June 9, 2010

Jack Olsen's books are recommended for nonsensationalist, detailed true crime writing. Wikipedia link.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:07 PM on June 9, 2010

Since you already enjoyed one Ann Rule book, I'd recommend reading her others (she's had enough output to keep you busy for a loooong time).
posted by amyms at 2:12 PM on June 9, 2010

Alexander Stille's Excellent Cadavers is a very absorbing account of the Sicilian mafia in the '80s & early '90s.
posted by misteraitch at 2:18 PM on June 9, 2010

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is great. NB: It's published by my company, but I read it before I worked there.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:19 PM on June 9, 2010

I just finished Columbine. It was fascinating, if only as a study of how media's manipulations of an event can become regarded as gospel truth.

Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven centers upon the murder of a young woman and her baby by Mormon Fundamentalists (in the name of God), but it's also an unsettling and brilliant history of the Mormon church and its fundamentalist spinoffs.
(upon preview, I see I'm thirding it)
posted by changeling at 2:20 PM on June 9, 2010

Response by poster: Since you already enjoyed one Ann Rule book...

Maybe (any suggestions?), but I should have specified in my question that I suspect I dug The Stranger Beside Me because her long personal relationship with Bundy just made for such uncanny access to him. That book wasn't terribly written, either, but since, as you point out, she's written SO much since, I wonder if the rest of her output is just potboilers after the one that got her into the biz.

These are already great suggestions, please keep them coming!
posted by Beardman at 2:23 PM on June 9, 2010

I've heard her Green River Killer book is okay from people with a vague relationship to the case.
posted by Artw at 2:28 PM on June 9, 2010

I wonder if the rest of her output is just potboilers after the one that got her into the biz.

No, they're not potboilers. Her writing style is pretty consistent, and her books are very well researched. Of course, I'm speaking as someone who enjoys her writing (some people don't like her at all). If you're going to give her another try, I'd recommend Small Sacrifices and Everything She Ever Wanted.
posted by amyms at 2:30 PM on June 9, 2010

Sometimes finding true crime stuff from other eras [or about people in other eras] can skip some of the skeevy Ann Rule breathless aspect. I liked The Devil in the White City. Looking it up on Amazon leads to some other good titles including the Krakauer book which I read and enjoyed. This whole story is fascinating but I'm not sure if there's a published book out about it. If not, there should be. Another book I've enjoyed was The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime which has some sort of crime/legal stories about the legal status of the sea [pirates!]

I also read two books about art theft which are also not quite the same thing [and really not at all about murder] but I enjoyed both of them: The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art and The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft
posted by jessamyn at 2:31 PM on June 9, 2010

Ann Rule: Small Sacrifices (Farrah Fawcett did the movie version, if you're in the mood for some Farrah), Dead by Sunset, And Never Let Her Go, Every Breath You Take, If You Really Loved Me, Bitter Harvest. These are somewhat campy yet interesting books. Airplane reading, if you will. (NB-I've found Rule's compilation books pretty awful.)

I also wholeheartedly recommend Krakauer and Cullen's books listed above.

Lethal Intent, about Aileen Wuornos, by Sue Russell (I have no idea why this book wasn't Americanized, weird Anglicizations which seem out of place in an American book). The movie Monster was based on this.

I'll think of about ten more shortly...
posted by December at 2:31 PM on June 9, 2010

I've not read this, but it;s been repeatedly recommended and Gitta Serenys stuff on WWII is excellent: Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell
posted by Artw at 2:32 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

And yes, and Artw mentioned, her book about the Green River Killer (Green River, Running Red) is considered to be one of the best books about the case.
posted by amyms at 2:33 PM on June 9, 2010

I really liked The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. It's a collection of true crime short stories. But they're all incredibly interesting, and I found it very well written.
posted by meese at 2:41 PM on June 9, 2010

This may be bending your request a little, but the The Best American Crime Reporting series is quite good. It's articles, not book-length treatments.
posted by Gorgik at 2:42 PM on June 9, 2010

And the Sea Will Tell was a very good read, though it has been several years. The same author (Bugliosi, the prosecutor) also has a book about Charles Manson which you might like.
I liked 3-5 of the early Ann Rule books, but the later ones are too formulaic.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher was unsatisfying. Perhaps that is because the motive was never really made clear by the killer, and because the detective never really caught the killer. I like me a good clean catch and a good understandable motive. Or some real insanity.
Devil in the White City has two great stories. However, they seem forced to interact in the book, and it was not so much fun.
posted by SLC Mom at 2:56 PM on June 9, 2010

I second jessamyn's Devil in the White City recommendation. I also highly recommend The City and The City, by China Mieville. It's not true crime, but it is a very true-crime-like murder mystery in a fascinating setting.
posted by ourobouros at 3:06 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed Eoin McNamee's (best known for Resurrection Man) The Ultras, which is a fictionalised but factually based account of the career of Captain Robert Nairac and the dirty war conducted by British intelligence agencies in collusion with paramilitaries during The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
posted by Abiezer at 3:12 PM on June 9, 2010

Judgment Ridge, about the murders of two professors at Dartmouth College, was good.
posted by rtha at 3:35 PM on June 9, 2010

I'm a fan of Tom French's Unanswered Cries, because it gets into the judicial proceedings of the entire case, although it happened in my home town, so I'm definitely biased.

I also really like Dr. William Maple's Dead Men Do Tell Tales (again super biased because I went to UF). The book is held together by his experiences, which makes for an interesting perspective. If you're interested at all in forensic anthropology, it is a fantastic read. He studied the Romanovs, Zachary Taylor, and Francisco Pizarro, along with some more contemporary cases.
posted by cndelia at 3:37 PM on June 9, 2010

Not true crime but some of it is crime related and it's a good read: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers - more than you could possibly want to know about dead bodies.
posted by Artw at 3:39 PM on June 9, 2010

if you not read the biography about fred & rose west, that one i found most interesting. i've read one really good book about john wayne gacy, but it's currently out of print. this might be the charles ng/leonard lake book i read, but my copy was hardback & i generally avoid those type of sensationalist covers because i figure it's going to be sloppy sensationalist writing.

those are the three that really stick out in my mind. i've read almost all the ann rule books, and her later writings stand up to her earlier stuff. not much of a fan of some of the others (jack olsen, aphrodite jones) although they're MUCH better than some of the slash & schlock writers out there.

i'll have to drag out the box of books i have packed away & see what i have in there. if i find anything i think is really interesting, i'll memail you.
posted by msconduct at 3:41 PM on June 9, 2010

oh ... agree with december that ann rule's compilation books are not her best. i think they're stories she starts to research & loses steam, so the characters aren't nearly as well fleshed out as in her full-length books.
posted by msconduct at 3:44 PM on June 9, 2010

Dragon tattoo is great, but not true.

Sorry, I skimmed over the true part in the question!
posted by kylej at 3:45 PM on June 9, 2010

Robert Ressler wrote a few very interesting books about staring up the Behavioural Sciences Unit at the FBI (he was one of the agents who created it).

There was a book I read, but fuck me if I can remember the title, about Andrei Chikatilov. Detailed, not sensationalist, rather well done.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 4:05 PM on June 9, 2010

Ann Rule does a good job. She writes a lot about the court I work in, and she is very, very accurate. (She tends to actually attend the trials she writes about.) Jack Olsen is local too but I'm less impressed with his books.

I also recommend Vincent Bugliosi, a very fine attorney and writer. His book about the Manson family, whom he prosecuted, is called Helter Skelter. Great, compelling book. I also really liked And The Sea Will Tell, which involves a case he defended.

One of the best true crime books ever written is Joe McGinniss' Fatal Vision, which generated its own amazing and involved back legal story because Dr. Jeffrey McDonald, the defendant and the person who invited McGinnis to follw his story, ended up suing for libel later. McDonald still contends he is innocent.

On the fiction side, I would recommend Michael Connolly. The Lincoln Lawyer is particularly good. He just gets everything right, unlike a lot of crime thriller writers.
posted by bearwife at 4:17 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Long-time true-crime reader here. I can't read the gruesome serial killer stuff, I like the books about one case, generally where the murderer and victim knew each other well and the book gets into their background and almost makes you feel like you're watching them interact.

The best:

Until the Twelfth of Never by Bella Stumbo (Betty Broderick case)
The Dead Girl by Melanie Thernstrom (about the murder of her friend, Bibi Lee)
Everything She Ever Wanted by Ann Rule, as has been mentioned
Cruel Doubt by Joe McGinniss (Lieth Von Stein murder, also on the same case, and just as good, is Blood Games by Jerry Bledsoe)
Cold Kill by Jack Olsen (James and Virginia Campbell murders)
posted by GaelFC at 4:19 PM on June 9, 2010

Also recommended: David Simon's nonfiction book about the year he spent with the Baltimore PD, called Homicide: A Year on the Killng Streets. The successful TV series was based on that book.
posted by bearwife at 4:20 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Affair of the Poisons, if you're willing to go to 17th century France.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:37 PM on June 9, 2010

Couple of British historical ones (better than the interesting but unsatisfying Mr Whicher):

The Surgeon Of Crowthorne
Death At The Priory

Oh, and a film.

Watch the spoilers, people.
posted by cromagnon at 4:44 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss.
posted by marsha56 at 4:45 PM on June 9, 2010

I just remembered reading a very good book about Jack Unterweger - The Vienna Woods Killer by John Leake.

As you enjoyed The Executioners Song have you thought of trying 'Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery' also by Norman Mailer ?
posted by selton at 5:24 PM on June 9, 2010

Oh! Semifictional, but The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, is absolutely wonderful. Examines what happened to the Princes in the Tower.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 5:35 PM on June 9, 2010

The Last Victim, while not quite what you're looking for, stuck with me a long time after reading it. The main author, Jason Moss, struck up a mail correspondence with serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer, and describes what it was like. He even went and visited Gacy in prison. It's a disturbing read because it gives an insight into the fascination serial killers have for some people. Full disclosure: The co-author is an academic colleague of my mom's and I've met him a couple of times.

I also suggest The New Yorker. They've always written about crime (indeed In Cold Blood was first published in its pages) so they've got a huge backlog. A couple of recent articles which have stayed with me are this long piece about a murder in Africa caught on camera by ABC and the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.
posted by Kattullus at 9:31 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's fiction, but Peter Carey's 'True History of the Kelly Gang', based on the life of the notorious Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, is excellent. It won lots of literary prizes, and deservedly.
posted by goo at 4:51 AM on June 10, 2010

Oh, how could I forget John Berendt's 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil'?
posted by goo at 9:33 AM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm)
posted by Sukey Says at 4:44 PM on June 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions, folks. You're the best.
posted by Beardman at 4:50 PM on June 10, 2010

sorry I'm late to this party, but I'd like to put in a word for Harold Schechter (ed.), True Crime: An American Anthology (Library of America)
posted by davemack at 12:42 PM on June 12, 2010

Not true crime, but reads like it - William Marsh's 'The Bad Seed' is also a great read.
posted by goo at 4:10 PM on June 17, 2010

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