Tell me about your favorite nonfiction "mysteries"!
December 1, 2015 4:45 PM   Subscribe

My favorite way to unwind is with a good murder mystery, but after a few too many anticlimactic solutions and "it isn't really about the mystery, it's about the marvelous setting and characters" books, I'm ready to switch to nonfiction for a while.

Nonfiction books I've read that scratch the "mystery" itch include The Cuckoo's Egg (computer programmer tracking down a hacker), All the President's Men (needs no introduction), and Black Mass (Boston reporters on the trail of Whitey Bulger). I'm looking for more like these -- well-written, smartly paced accounts of intrepid investigators getting to the bottom of some convoluted problem.
posted by Ralston McTodd to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 121 users marked this as a favorite
Truman Capote's In Cold Blood
posted by sharks don't eat potatoes at 4:57 PM on December 1, 2015 [7 favorites]

Erik Larson's Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck
posted by esoterrica at 4:59 PM on December 1, 2015 [8 favorites]

Helter Skelter.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:03 PM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter
posted by Lucinda at 5:03 PM on December 1, 2015

Gary Kinder's Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea is a wonderful find-the-sunken-treasure mystery. It's a really fun read, mixing research, clever innovation, luck, and a variety of interesting individuals with specialized skill sets into a well told yarn. Unfortunately, in the real life epilogue (which played out well after the book was published), the hero/protagonist seems to have made some unsavory and hurtful decisions (which you can find via Google if you care to), but as long as you weren't an investor in the search that shouldn't diminish the fun you'll have reading the book.
posted by mosk at 5:17 PM on December 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

With mention of the Cuckoo's Egg, you might want to look into this response to an AskMefi for engineering fiction.

I haven't (yet) read the two books being recommended, but they're non-fiction and it seems that real-world adventure surrounding the solving of seemingly unsolvable problems before it's too late probably scratches the same itch as real-world adventure surrounding solving unsolvable mysteries before it's too late.
posted by anonymisc at 5:17 PM on December 1, 2015

Best answer: Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, about the investigation into the murder of Iranian dissidents in Germany. My dad and I were reading the same copy simultaneously and whenever one of us made the mistake of taking our hands off the book, the other would grab it.
posted by carolr at 5:23 PM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's old, but I suggest Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field.
posted by cecic at 5:31 PM on December 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: People Who Eat Darkness

Haven't read this one yet, but it's lined up on the TBR shelf: That Lonely Section of Hell
posted by janey47 at 5:31 PM on December 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

If you liked the Whitey Bulger thing and have any interest at all in the area you might also like Dark Tide the book about the Great Molasses Flood (not quite so much a whodunit as how the lawsuit was going to work out) and this book about the Gardner Heist (warning: no satisfying conclusion. See also: The Art Detective). Right now I'm reading Pirate Hunters about people searching for a pirate ship (I assume they find it).
posted by jessamyn at 5:32 PM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Kurt Eichenwald, The Informant
posted by dfan at 5:36 PM on December 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

These are actually long-form articles but Vanity Fair ran two separate stories about how this private investigator solved two really weird cases that had the police stumped.

The Case of the Vanishing Blonde

(The second is called "The Body in Room 348", if you can find it--I read it in the past year but now can't find a working link).
posted by lovableiago at 5:37 PM on December 1, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The Riddle of the Labyrinth, Margalit Fox. Unsung brainy woman deciphers ancient Bronze Age tablets.
posted by apparently at 5:38 PM on December 1, 2015

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher - Kate Summerscale [Warning: autoplaying audio at link; can be turned off at the top-left corner.]

Damn His Blood - Peter Moore
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 5:46 PM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is pretty great.

Another one that I think is just fantastic is And the Band Played On. Lots of tracking going on in that book. Identifying the disease, CDC stuff, NHIM stuff, international medical theft, patient zero (kind of threw poor Gaytan Dugas under the bus on that one.)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:53 PM on December 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: True Story
posted by CMcG at 6:05 PM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh that reminds me of The Medical Detectives by Berton Roueche. He has a few more that are also good. Interesting even if you don't have much of a medical background or interest.
posted by jessamyn at 6:14 PM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris. The title sums it up pretty well.
posted by FencingGal at 6:18 PM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jantz may scratch that itch.
posted by BoscosMom at 6:29 PM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Lost City of Z was a fun and creepy read about cocky colonial explorers getting their asses handed to them by the Amazon.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:43 PM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi.

Or, if you prefer, a shortened version of the story in The Atlantic.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:43 PM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Cuckoos Egg, by Clifford Stoll
posted by Sebmojo at 7:10 PM on December 1, 2015

Best answer: Midnight in Peking.
posted by BibiRose at 7:11 PM on December 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Double Helix, by James Watson. Two mischievous PhD students - a bombastic Brit and an upstart American wunderkind - neglect their day-jobs to pursue an obsession with discovering the genetic code... and succeed against the odds.

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough. A pair of brothers - bicycle makers from Dayton, Ohio - catch the "flying machine" bug. Dismissed as just another couple of cranks, they trek to the barren Outer Banks of North Carolina year after year, sleeping in hovels for months at a time, to test their machines and discover the solution to the problem of flight.

NB: the first book is much faster-paced than the second!
posted by explorer42 at 7:45 PM on December 1, 2015

Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Miracle of the Age of Sail, by Stephen R. Bown. Pretty much what it says on the tin.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:46 PM on December 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

I saw the new movie "Spotlight" the other day, about the unit of Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the Catholic Church's protection of pedophile priests. I haven't read the book Betrayal, which is a collection of their investigations, but the story told by the movie is a good fit for what you're after, so I imagine the book is worth checking out, accordingly.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:51 PM on December 1, 2015

You could help solve real mysteries at the Uvic History department unsolved Canadian mysteries site!

It's pretty cool, look through real artifacts and read the case, try to solve it! It's a Canadian high school history resource too (for teachers out there).
posted by chapps at 10:32 PM on December 1, 2015

Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of WWII: Deep sea divers try to identify a wreck off the coast of New Jersey. Don't read anything more about it, just read it.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:11 PM on December 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Bill James's Popular Crime is an amazingly engaging tour through the history of what is now called true crime in America—kind of a survey of the landscape between 1700 and now. He presents a lot of the stories he tells along the way in a mystery format, introducing the evidence (or what was thought at the time to be evidence) as investigators and the public got their hands on it.
posted by Polycarp at 2:02 AM on December 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One of my all-time favorite books: Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson.

"Power, passion, oil money, murder—all the ingredients of a fast-paced, gripping mystery novel drive this true-crime story that on its original publication leapt onto best-seller lists nationwide. To that mix, add glamorous personalities, prominent Texas businessmen, gangland reprobates, and a whole parade of medical experts. At once a documentary account of events and a novelistic reconstruction of encounters among the cast of colorful characters, this anatomy of murder first chronicles the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death in 1969 of Joan Robinson—the pampered daughter of a Texas oil millionaire and the wife of plastic surgeon Dr. John Hill—then examines the bizarre consequences that followed it. For in 1972, having been charged by his father-in-law with Joan's death and having survived a mistrial, John Hill himself was killed, supposedly by a robber. So was the robber, by a cop, supposedly for resisting arrest. From the exclusive haunts of Houston's super-rich to the city's seamy underworld of prostitutes, pimps, and punks, author and investigative journalist Thomas Thompson tracks down all the leads and clues. And in a brutal tale of blood and money he uncovers some shocking and bitter truths."
posted by Dolley at 10:00 AM on December 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Lost Girls by Robert Kolker, The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (she also has a good one that was a New Yorker article published as book called Iphigenia in Forest Hills), nthing True Story + People Who Eat Darkness.

This article has a bunch of great recommendations. I am working my way through the list.
posted by Drohan at 2:01 PM on December 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the recommendations -- it will take me a while to work through these! I marked somewhat arbitrarily as "best answers" the ones that most appeal to my taste.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 5:17 PM on December 2, 2015

Probably also not to your taste, but they are investigations of a sort.

Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse.

And in a similar vein, The Quest for Corvo.
posted by BWA at 6:13 PM on December 2, 2015

All the John Sandfords and all the Michael Connellys.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:46 AM on December 3, 2015

The Best American Crime Writing series ran from about 2002-2010 (the name was later changed to "Best American Crime Reporting" to eliminate confusion about whether it was fiction). The books collected longform articles from around the US, and I don't think there's a dud in there.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 1:04 PM on December 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

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