We each have our own preferred genres of choice. Kate loves horrors and thrillers, really anything that will keep her up at night! And Serena enjoys escaping through hidden doors into realms of magic and adventure. We also read mysteries, historical fiction, graphic novels, etc. etc. And that’s not even counting the multitude of sub-genres contained within each greater genre. In this series, one of us with present a list of our favorites from within a given sub-genre of one of our greater preferred genres.
I will admit, the very idea of encompassing the entire classification of True Crime into the sub-genre box is a little bit of a cheat. One can certainly argue that true crime is a genre in and of itself, as it is a genre within the Non-Fiction Umbrella of books and storytelling. But the reason that I am going to classify it here as a sub genre is because I am the blogger who takes on the entirety of Non-Fiction on this blog, though that is admittedly few and far between. Because of this, I’m going to talk about true crime as a sub-genre on its own, but I am hoping that I will cover a swath of the kinds of stories you can find within that topic, genre or sub-genre or what have you.
True crime has kind of seen a bit of a resurgence as of late, with a sudden explosion of podcasts, docuseries, and yes, books on the topics of serial killers, missing people, and the random and strange acts that happen to fall into a gamut of wrongdoing. I’ve been a huge fan of true crime since I was a grade schooler, when I read my first true crime book (which was a kids oriented book about Jack the Ripper of all things!). While I enjoy picking up a book about true crime, I also find myself struggling with the moral dilemma of using other peoples pain for my own intrigue and, in crasser terms, entertainment. I do think that there is something that can be found in true crime that can be useful, however, even if that’s only to explore some of my own anxieties about these things in a safe and controlled way. So here is a list of some of my favorite true crime books, be they about cases or stories I’ve found interesting, or books that I have found genuinely useful when it comes to mitigating my own fears surrounding the subject.
Book: “The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy: The Shocking Inside Story” by Ann Rule
Honestly there are a whole lot of ‘classic’ true crime books that I truly love, from “Helter Skelter” by Vince Bugliosi to “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, but when picking one for this list I had to go with “The Stranger Beside Me” by Ann Rule. True, there has been a weird obsession with Ted Bundy in the past few years, and I definitely get and agree with the criticism regarding telling his story over and over again (especially when so much focus is on HIM and not the women he brutalized and murdered). But I decided to include “The Stranger Beside Me” because it was the book that propelled Ann Rule to the legendary true crime writer status that she had when she was alive. And it’s the added fact that Rule was friends with Bundy because they worked in the same suicide hotline call center, and that she, too, fell for the ‘well he couldn’t possibly because he’s so upstanding’ fallacy that made him so dangerous. Rule gives context to Bundy’s story, does have some focus on his victims, and also analyzes her own role in all of this, as she was investigating and writing about the murders that her friend Ted was committing while not connecting the dots. It’s a well done look into how a serial killer like Bundy could manipulate those around him, and a very personal story about the blinders that people have when it comes to those they care about, even when there is ample evidence that they are not good people.
Book: “Party Monster: A Fabulous But True Tale of Murder in Clubland” by James St. James
This is once again a bit of a personalized account of what it’s like to be friends with a murderer, but it definitely has a bit more, shall we say, flamboyance if only because the author is legendary Club Kid James St. James. “Party Monster” (formerly known as “Disco Bloodbath”) is St. James’s true crime book/partial memoir about his friendship with Michael Alig, fellow Club Kid who murdered another Club Kid named Angel Melendez over a drug squabble. But “Party Monster” is also a first hand account of the 1990s club scene in New York City, and the wild, vibrant, idealistic, and sometimes destructive people who lived within it. St. James is a very funny writer who talks about the ups and downs of being a Club Kid (basically professional partiers known for their extravagance in costumes, themes, and attitudes in the club scenes), his battles with addiction, and his fremeny relationship with Alig, who ended up being a psychpathic murderer. St. James never fails to make me laugh, but he also tells a very intriguing story that has a lot of pathos because of what it was like being queer, poor, and somewhat adrift at a young age in a big city.
Book: “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” by Erik Larson
Erik Larson is probably more of a history writer, as his books have the framework of taking a historical event and examining different facets of it, or the unintended consequences of it. “The Devil in the White City” just happens to involve a serial killer named H.H. Holmes. In Chicago in 1893, the World’s Fair (also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition) drew many people to the city from all over the country. It just so happened that H.H. Holmes was taking advantage of this fact, as he set up a hotel for women to live, and then would murder them and profit off of their deaths. “The Devil in the White City” does a deep dive into the history of the Exposition, with the background, the planning, the execution, and the bumps along the way, as well as telling the story of a legitimate American monster. I love how he makes the historical connections between a huge event and the smaller event that was able to happen because of that huge event. And along with the true crime aspect, you get some interesting factoids about the Chicago World’s Fair and the city itself!
Book: “I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks” by Steve McVicker
On the non-violent side of things, we turn to one of the most bizarre true crime books I have ever read that involves fraud, prison breaks, and true love (sort of). “I Love You Phillip Morris” is a bananas stranger than fiction book to be sure. Steve Russell was a family man who had ties to his Church community, a wife and daughter, and promising career in business. He was also a closeted gay man, and after going to prison for a fraud charge he met and fell desperately in love with fellow inmate Phillip Morris. Russell would go on to escape from jail over and over again, usually with outlandish plans and ALWAYS on Friday the 13th, but he would always fall victim to his love for Morris, and his inability to just move on or stop committing fraud/pulling a con would mean he’d be caught again and again. It’s a truly nutty story that is entertaining as all get out, and with a lack of serial killing or other violent themes it’s a good pick for those who are interested in true crime as a whole, but are worried about triggering aspects of it. “I Love You Phillip Morris” is just kinda fun as well as bonkers.
Book: “Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up In a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs” by Elissa Wall and Lisa Pulitzer
“Stolent Innocence” by Elissa Wall was the second book that I had ever read on the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints (or FLDS), but it was the first one that was from the perspective of a woman who had escaped the abusive cult that had held her prisoner ever since she was born into it. The FLDS is an extremist offshoot of Mormonism that still practices Polygamy, and more often than not marries of teenage girls (and someones younger) to older men, who then are trapped in an abusive marriage in which they are dehumanized and subjected to sexual assault as well as other abuses (sometimes even at the hands of their sister wives). Elissa Wall’s memoir is such a story, as she talks about growing up in the FLDS, as well as when convicted rapist Warren Jeffs took over and really upped the ante on violence and sexual abuse towards the members. This book is compelling, personal, and in many ways quite upsetting. But it is also a testament to the strength that Elissa had to get herself out of this situation and to find a new life for herself. The FLDS also has it’s fingers in other crime pies, like fraud, harassment, child abandonment, and trafficking, so it really has a full swath of true crime topics.
Book: “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence” by Gavin de Becker
I am ending this list with a book that is less about a specific true crime case, and more about ways to potentially lower chances of becoming victim to something bad (though I want to stress something here: in no way am I saying that victims of crimes are at fault in any way shape or form. This is just a book that I have been able to use in my actual life in some ways and found it helpful). “The Gift of Fear” is written by Gavin de Becker, who specializes in violent behavior, with lots of focus on stalking and abusive behaviors. de Becker talks about different scenarios and cases, from victims of violence to stalking to targeted harassment, and shares tips and techniques on how he advises people to use their instincts and wits to get out of or avoid dangerous situations. I myself had a fairly creepy and aggressive phone stalker for a year or so back when I was right out of college, and this book gave me some good advice on how to proceed, which ended up being effective. It’s definitely not perfect (I think that he misses the mark on his section on domestic violence, and yes, it can come off a little victim blamey at times), but there are definitely good nuggets of info about listening to your gut if a situation doesn’t feel right, and to not worry about how you may be perceived because of it.
What true crime books are must reads for you? Feel free to share in the comments!