This is a guest post by Ingrid Nelson.
I started reading and collecting true crime books when I was in college. I’m pretty sure my interest was first piqued by John Waters’ Shock Value. The chapter called “All My Trials” was all about his experiences as a trial buff. He attended the Manson trial, Patty Hearst, Angela Davis, all the most famous trials of the 60s and 70s. I am a California native, so those were all crimes I grew up hearing about, along with the Lindbergh baby, the Zodiac, Jonestown, and the Milk/Moscone assassinations.
The way John Waters talked about true crime, it was like a guilty pleasure: sordid but entertaining. I thought it was hilarious at first, then I went through a phase of feeling guilty about it. Then I started thinking seriously about why I was drawn to these stories, and I decided it was a natural human reaction, and not something I needed to be ashamed of. I am fascinated by people and what makes them tick, so of course I want to learn about what happens when people go horribly wrong. It reminds me of when I was studying anatomy and physiology in nursing school. I always found cardiology sort of confusing — until we studied congenital heart defects. Learning what happened when the heart didn’t work properly was how I came to understand normal cardiac function.
I am now unapologetic about my love for true crime, but I try not to joke about it anymore. If you read John Waters now, it’s obvious that he went through something similar. He has befriended some notorious killers, visits them in prison, even advocates for their release if he thinks they are rehabilitated. He has cast Patty Hearst in some of his movies. He has taught film classes inside prisons. He is careful to avoid any hint of exploitation, tasteless jokes, or gratuitous violence when he writes about it now.
Like so many “This American Life” listeners, I have been completely obsessed with the “Serial” podcast. But I was struck by how many fans said they felt guilty or embarrassed. I went through that process years ago, I have made my peace with it, and I am here now to help you all embrace your love of a good crime story. I have formed some serious opinions about how to distinguish good true crime from bad. I look for books that are well written and thoughtful, that are unflinching and honest without being lurid. I look for moral complexity, for writers who try to analyze and understand the horror, but not excuse it. And of course, one of the most important skills is an eye for which case will make a good book.
So, for my fellow “Serial” fans, I present: Ingrid’s True Crime Top Ten.
1. Ann Rule, The Stranger Beside Me. Ted Bundy was probably the most compelling serial killer ever, and Ann Rule is an excellent true crime writer. All of her books are page turners: Small Sacrifices, If You Really Loved Me, and Everything She Ever Wanted, just for starters. But the story behind this book is mind boggling. Rule and Bundy were pretty good friends during the time that she was starting to write a book about the still-unsolved “Ted murders.” As the case unfolds, it gradually dawns on her that her friend might be the killer.
2. Ed Sanders, The Family. If you have read anything about this case, most likely you read Helter Skelter, the DA’s essential and meticulous account of the state’s case against Manson and The Family. But Vincent Bugliosi is kind of a right wing asshole who flinches at any mention of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Ed Sanders tells the story from the perspective of a weird hipster rock musician who spent some time hanging out with Family members, but who doesn’t flinch from their horrifying crimes. He explains how the murders really did break the peace and love spell of the 1960s.
3. Melanie Thernstrom, Halfway Heaven. This might be my absolute favorite true crime book ever. Two female exchange students at Harvard are roommates and best friends. One becomes obsessed with the other and kills her in a murder-suicide. Thernstrom is a Harvard alum herself, and she mercilessly picks apart the racism, classism, and social pressure of Harvard student life, and how toxic that environment became to a young immigrant woman with serious undiagnosed mental health issues. She also chastises the university administration for ignoring the student’s call for help, and for trying to sweep this case under the rug. Beautifully written and researched.
4. Angela Davis: An Autobiography. It’s a little audacious to write an autobiography at age 28, as Davis herself acknowledges in the introduction. But how many 28 year olds have already been on the FBI Ten Most Wanted List and faced down a death sentence? This book really helped me understand the radical black politics of the 1970s. And did you know the four little girls killed in the Alabama church bombing of 1963 were friends of hers?
5. Calvin Trillin, Killings. I always loved Trillin’s droll food writing in The New Yorker. Who knew he was also an accomplished crime writer? This is a collection of straight up news reporting, gathered in his travels around the country, all about local murder cases you never heard of. Like his food writing, these stories give you little glimpses of a particular time and place, in a number of small American towns you probably also have never heard of.
6. Deborah Layton, Seductive Poison. Layton was one of the few survivors of the Jonestown massacre. Most of her family and friends died there. She was still a teenager when she made her brave escape, just a few days before it all went down. If you have ever wondered how smart, good hearted people end up in cults, she will help you understand.
7. Stanley Alpert, The Birthday Party. A rare case of a violent crime victim who lived to tell their own tale. Alpert was a federal prosecutor who got randomly kidnapped off the streets of Manhattan by some dangerous but somewhat inept criminals. His knowledge of forensics helped him to survive, to escape, and even to help with the investigation afterward.
8. Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven. The author weaves together a modern murder case involving a splinter faction of Mormon polygamists, and a history of the Mormon church’s violent beginnings. Atheists and skeptics will love this one.
9. Kate Millett, The Basement. 1970s feminist novelist Kate Millett analyzes the gruesome torture and murder of a teenage girl by her foster mother, aided by a gang that included the girl’s foster siblings and some neighborhood kids. A case about poverty, sexism, rape culture, and the brutality of mobs.
10. Maggie Nelson, The Red Parts. Shameless plug for a friend of my sister, who is also a poet and novelist. She grew up hearing about her maternal aunt who had been murdered by a serial killer before Maggie was born. Then, when she was in her 20s, the case got reopened, and everything she had been taught about her aunt’s death was suddenly in doubt.
This should be enough to get you started, but I have lots more. And I had so much fun making this list that I might just have to do a list of the Ten Honorable Mentions.
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.