Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich's haunting hybrid of memoir and true crime, The Fact of a Body, explores how a law school internship set her on a collision course with Ricky Langley, a pedophile and murderer, forcing her to contend with past trauma and preexisting prejudice. Her writing is remarkably evocative and taut with suspense, with a level of nuance that sets the book apart from other true crime accounts. Marzano-Lesnevich picks her 10 favorite true crime books.
What is it about crime that compels us? As an obsessive fan of podcasts like Serial, shows like The Making of a Murderer, and all the books I’m about to list below—and as a writer who just spent nearly a decade being haunted by a Louisiana murder, a haunting that eventually became my book The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir —I’ve wondered about this question. What I’ve come to think is that it’s not just the vivid suspense of a crime story, the lure of the whodunit, that pulls us in. Rather, it’s how much of the unsayable questions in life crimes lay starkly bare—how much of ourselves, as individuals and as a society, they reveal. In them are passion, blood, extreme acts, and extreme emotion—but in them are also the questions of who we are and who we wish to be, the various ways we love and fail and harm one another. Still, I read true crime for the stories—and so what the books that follow have in common, in addition to being the best true crime I know, is that their pages turn quickly, even as the truths they reveal persist.
1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Perhaps no one does this mix better than Truman Capote, and any list of true crime greats must start with In Cold Blood, Capote’s 1966 classic that arguably began the genre. Capote brings us into the heart of Holcomb, Kansas, a small town torn apart by the devastating murder of an entire family, and—unforgettably—into the hearts of their killers. The book has come under a bit of (deserved) heat in the past few years, with revelations that undermine its “true” label—but Capote’s storytelling chops remain unparalleled.
2. The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm
But what of the more precise journalist’s interest in crime? Is it prurient? Exploitative? Or in service of something larger? “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”—so, provocatively, begins Janet Malcolm’s examination of the relationship between the journalist’s Joe McGinniss and the murderer Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald. What follows is not a condemnation of the genre—Malcolm herself has written several true crime books, among them the excellent Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial—but instead one of its most essential examples, an honest, incredibly smart inquiry into why we write about murder, why we’re drawn to it, and the tricky line the journalist must walk in depicting crime without sensationalizing it.
That journalistic challenge is one David Cullen faced head-on in the days after the devastating school shooting at Columbine. After the murders, the question of why Klebold and Harris had carried out their horrific plan was haunting—and the media quickly tried to put it to rest with too-simple, made-for-the-headlines answers: the Trenchcoat Mafia, bullying, the music of Marilyn Manson. Cullen spent 10years of investigation in Aurora, Colorado, digging through these answers to the complexity below, and the result is a page-turning, complex, disturbingly readable book of incredible ambition and scope.
4. Shot in the Heart by Mikhal Gilmore
What Cullen’s book does on the social level, Mikhal Gilmore’s does on the familial one. He writes from an intimacy unique in true crime. He’s the brother of Gary Gilmore, the first man executed when the United States reinstated the death penalty in the 1970s, who asked to die in an unusually violent way: by being shot in the heart. (Here’s a little-known fact that shows just how deeply crime penetrates our national subconscious: the Nike slogan “Just do it” was taken from Gilmore’s last words.) Norman Mailer wrote the classic The Executioner’s Song about Gilmore’s crimes and death, but it’s Mikhal Gilmore, a music journalist, who wrote the truly essential book, mining into his brother’s murderous legacy, family loyalty, and the gothic hold violence has over generations. Shot in the Heart is an epic as engrossing as any of the great Russian novels—but all the more harrowing for being true.
Intimate, too, is Justin St. Germain’s investigation of his mother’s murder. Twenty years old at the time of his mother’s death, St. Germain had been raised by his mother alone, and by a revolving cast of husbands—one of whom then shot and killed his mother. As St. Germain goes on a quest to reconstruct her life and understand her death by interviewing her husbands, he stumbles onto the question of what legacy of masculinity and violence his town of Tombstone, Arizona, home of the O.K. Corral shoot-out, holds. The result is a murder mystery with both emotional and investigative urgency, a look into both the mythological allure of violence and its devastating costs.
I listened to this book while driving across America—and if you have the option, that’s how I’d recommend reading it, because Krakauer’s riveting tale of the founding of the Mormon Church is a distinctly American story. The crime comes in with a 1984 double murder that may, or may not, have had its origins years before, in the fight over precepts of Mormonism—a fight that soon turns into secrets, intrigue, passion, and bloodshed.
Good luck putting this one down. Larson’s a master of suspense in everything he writes—but The Devil in the White City is his masterpiece, written in short chapters that fly by. He intertwines the stories of the architect of the World’s Fair and a serial killer, in vivid, made-for-the-screen scenes, now in development with Paramount.
This one’s already been made into a movie, with good reason. A mysterious stranger, a secret love affair, and a dead body, all set amid Savannah, Georgia’s high-society—true stories don’t get more Southern Gothic than this.
9. Killings by Calvin Trillin
How many ways does murder occur? Killings—an odd, addictive little book that was recently reissued—lives up to its title with a collection of brief, strange, brilliantly written murder vignettes, all originally published in The New Yorker. Follow this one up with Reporting at Wit’s End: Tales from the New Yorker, a collection of St. Clair McKelway’s crime beat reporting for the magazine through the 1930s and 1940s, that features witty and drily delivered portraits of murderous gangsters and clever counterfeiters.
Lastly, here’s an unforgettable book told from a perspective too-little featured in true crime: that of the victim. Here, Lacy Johnson takes an almost-too-horrific-to-grasp scenario—I won’t be giving anything away to share that her boyfriend built a sound-proof room to hold her, to rape and presumably kill her—and turns it into a smartly told, enthralling, emotionally ruinous, and all-too-real evocation of what it’s like to be on the other side of a true crime story.