What could be more fun for cozy winter reading than ghastly, gory true-crime tales? If you love real-life tales of heists, fraud, and murder most foul, you’re sure to find plenty of sordid thrills in these tell-alls. For more true-crime stories, check out our Girls, Abducted reading list.
The Book of Matt
Author: Stephen Jimenez
Some real-life murder stories are cut and dried. We know the victim, we know the perpetrator and we know what happened. Sometimes we even know why. Until someone comes along and turns the entire story upside down. Screenwriter Stephen Jimenez did just that when spent most of the last decade looking a little deeper into the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd, a gay University of Wyoming college student. This heinous offense quickly ignited protests nationwide as one of the most infamous hate crimes of all time. In The Book of Matt, supported by copious interviews and research, Jimenez reveals countless previously ignored details that cast a long shadow of doubt on the accepted storyline. A gripping and sometimes genuinely scary account, it’s true crime writing with a definite edge. Read the full review.
Catch Me If You Can
Author: Frank W. Abagnale
If you’ve seen the movie adaptation, then you’re already familiar with the wild criminal career of Frank W. Abagnale. After running away from home at 16, he started small by passing bad checks, keeping a step ahead of the law by staying on the move. Attracted by the jet-set glamour of airline pilots, Abagnale forged an aviation license and Pan Am ID, traveling the world at the airline’s expense. To change things up, he would also impersonate lawyers, doctors, or college professors — all before turning 20 years old. Eventually, he was caught, and in 1980, after serving various sentences for a vast collection of financial fraud convictions, he told his story (with the help of co-writer Stan Redding) in Catch Me If You Can. For those who wonder what Abagnale is up to now, editions published after the 2003 movie include updates about his reformed and presumably law-abiding adult life. Read our review.
The Devil in the White City
Author: Erik Larson
If you’ve got a thing for architecture, American history and gruesome serial killers, The Devil in the White City should move to the top of your book pile. Written by journalist Erik Larson in 2003, it tells the true story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the charming serial killer that lurked in his nearby “murder castle.” Full of fascinating history and plenty of horrific gore, Larson shows why he’s one of the top narrative history writers in the business. See our full review.
Author: Sudhir Venkatesh
What’s it like to be a small time criminal in the big city? What’s your life like if you’re part of the vast “illegitimate” economy of urban America? In Floating City, Sudhir Venkatesh – an ethnographer at Columbia University – explores these types of questions in the dark criminal underworld of Manhattan. In this fascinating study, the author befriends dozens of prostitutes, drug dealers, sex brokers and porn shop operators in an effort to find some answers. An intensely written, surprising and often dangerous exploration of the criminal life, it puts human faces on the throw away roles from your favorite TV crime dramas. Read our review.
Green River Killer
Author: Jeff Jensen
This fascinating true-crime memoir about the Green River Killer has an interesting local connection: author Jeff Jensen is the son of Tom Jensen, an investigator on the Green River Killer Task Force. For decades, Gary Ridgway abducted, raped, and murdered as many as 71 women, often burying the bodies near the Green River; Tom Jensen joined the case in 1990 and worked for nearly 20 years to catch the killer. After Ridgway’s 2001 arrest, Tom Jensen and other detectives spent months with Ridgway as he worked with police to name and locate the remains of his victims. Green River Killer is about the worst serial killer in the Pacific Northwest’s history, of course, but it’s also a clear-eyed yet sympathetic portrayal of Tom Jensen’s obsession and how it shaped the family over the years.
The Killer of Little Shepherds
Author: Douglas Starr
If horrific and historical true crime stories are your thing, spiced up with a dash of forensic science, The Killer of Little Shepherds may be to your liking. Telling the story of Joseph Vacher, a flagrantly disturbed serial killer who roamed the French countryside for much of the 1890s, this book by Boston University professor Douglas Starr deftly balances gore, science and history to create a thoroughly entertaining read. Put together like a 19th century version of CSI or Law and Order, it’s sure to provide creeps aplenty. You can read our full review of the book here.
Author: Robert Kolker
Sometimes the best true crime books involve a criminal investigation that is still in progress. Case in point is Lost Girls, an exploration of the lives of five female prostitutes whose bodies were found on a quiet highway on Jones Beach Island, just outside of New York City in 2011 and 2012. No perpetrator has ever been identified, not even any likely suspects. Exhaustively researched, the book is a thoughtful and engaging look at the ubiquitous sex trade and its victims, who so frequently are ignored. An excellent choice for anyone who’s looking for a modern-day, real-life murder mystery with more questions than answers.
The Murder of the Century
Author: Paul Collins
More murder for history buffs! One of a long list of “murders of the century,” this murder was discovered in 1897 when two boys pulled the upper half of man’s body from New York’s East River. Unfortunately for those who were tasked with solving the mystery, the victim’s head was missing. The drama surrounding this story just happened to be the perfect ignition point for the increasingly outrageous battle between the city’s first “yellow” journalists, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Equal parts fascinating journalistic history, early forensic science and riveting crime drama, The Murder of the Century, by Portland State University English professor Paul Collins, is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure in late 19th-century madness.
The Poisoner’s Handbook
Author: Deborah Blum
This riveting book is about the birth of modern forensic medicine, which more or less took place in Jazz Age New York. The medical examiner’s office had been a pretty corrupt and lazy department, accepting bribes to change death certificates and generally not being too ethical. Until, that is, the crime-fighting duo of chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler teamed up to kick ass and modernize the entire field of forensic medicine. They fired the deadwood, forced the police to work with them, and developed new and ever-more-sophisticated tests to detect minute amounts of then-popular poisons like chloroform and arsenic. Don’t worry, there’s also plenty of gruesome real-life crime to spice things up!