My True Crime Spree (Books! We’re talking about books)

Look, when I set a goal of reading 52 books this year, I sincerely meant to read mostly meaty, intellectual, improving books. My Kindle is full of books on nearly every science, history, self-improvement, business, and other such lofty subjects. I’ve even got some fairly hefty literature, including some substantial fantasy and science fiction I should be reading. My physical bookshelves are groaning under unread books guaranteed to spice up the old intellect.

So let’s see how that’s going, shall we?

My 52 books by genre. There are… a few imbalances.

Ha ha ha whoops.

Look, in my defense, I don’t count scientific papers as books. If I did, that Earth Science section would be giving the True Crime slice a decent challenge for first place. But it’s true. I’ve been on a true crime spree. It’s gotten so bad that I subscribed to Kindle Unlimited so I could continue my spree cheaply and easily.

Some of the true crime books I’ve been reading have transcended the usual expectations of the genre. They become deep explorations of psychology, sociology, history, and science. They are superbly written, deeply researched, and leave you with some shaken beliefs and plenty to think about. I’ll review those books in depth.

Here in this post, we’ll hit up the books that were perfectly good reading, but didn’t manage to make the leap from compelling to transcendent. At the end, I shall rate them on a scale of golden gavels, from one (meh) to three (great). And if you decide you wish to read one or all, and purchase them through the provided links, you will not only find your true crime needs satisfied, but also earn me a spot of Amazon credit so I can continue my true crime spree purchase further improving books to review for you. Thank you!

Please feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments below.

My Daddy Is a Hero: How Chris Watts Went from Family Man to Family Killer by Lena Derhally

There is something really profoundly disturbing about the family annihilator, who decides that their spouse and kids are worth more to them dead than alive for whatever reason. The worst ones are the happy families, where on the surface it looks like everything was pretty ordinary. There may be some everyday issues, but the police aren’t being called out for domestic violence issues, neighbors aren’t hearing screaming matches, the couple seems relatively happy, and the kids are pretty well adjusted.

That was Shanann and Chris Watts’s family, until he murdered Shanann and their two girls, plus the fetus she was carrying. What causes a typical suburban dude to decide wholesale murder is preferable to divorce? This book, written by a psychotherapist and intensely researched, attempts to answer that question. If you’ve seen the Netflix documentary about this case, it will put a lot of things into better context. Lena Derhally does a deep-dive into Chris Watts’s life and mind. She does the same for Shanann, showing that no, she didn’t drive him to do this by being a domineering harridan or whatever excuse people would like to proffer for her brutal murder. Lena also debunks the idea that a) Chris has Asperger’s and b) that people with Asperger’s are likely to commit horrible murders, which is nice to see.

This book was eminently readable, very informative, and took good care of the victims. 3/3 golden gavels, would recommend.

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A Tangled Web: A Cyberstalker, a Deadly Obsession, and the Twisting Path to Justice by Leslie Rule

It’s somewhat unusual for a woman to be a stalker, but not uncommon. It’s much less ordinary for a woman to be a violent stalker; more rare still for her to be a murderous one. And it’s supremely disturbing when she’s not only a murderous stalker, but kills her love object’s date and then puts on a cyber version of that date’s skin, pretending to be her in order to stalk, harass, and deceive.

It gets beyond freaky when that stalker in a dead woman’s cyber clothing then uses her campaign to win the affections of her object of obsession.

Leslie Rule (yes, that Rule; she’s indeed the daughter of Ann Rule) weaves this whole outrageous story together masterfully. It’s not comfortable walking in the mind of a murderous stalker, but it’s utterly compelling. And lords, the tension you feel as you watch her poor lover being terrorized with horrible messages and acts from his supposed ex, and you can’t scream to him, “Dude, it’s the woman right beside you who’s doing this!” And even after you think you’ve seen the worst she can do, she escalates. Yikes.

Do I recommend this book? Do I ever! Skeptics will just have to smile indulgently when Leslie, who’s a former paranormal writer, segues briefly into speculation about ghosts. It’s okay. The rest of the book is firmly grounded on this side of the veil.

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Butcher, Baker: The True Account of an Alaskan Serial Killer by Walter Gilmour and Leland E. Hale

I first read about Robert Hansen’s crimes in Mindhunter, back in the long-ago days when I was just a young ‘un working in a bookstore and learning how truly fucked up human beings can be. There was just one chapter on this guy who flew women into the Alaskan wilderness and shot them dead for sport – a substantial one, but not nearly enough. So of course I snatched this book right up when I saw it.

This guy. This fucking guy. The authors do a solid job of tracing his general lack of human decency through a lifetime of escalating crime. I had no idea of the extent of his youthful criminality, but it’s a lot. The shit he put his poor wife and kids through because he was a twisted little shit: also a lot. It’s fascinating to watch the detectives first piecing together the fact they had a killer, then a serial killer, then following a trail of disparate clues until they finally were able to identify and stop this sadistic murderer.

The only reason I’m not giving it three golden gavels is because it’s not a standout work. It’s very solid work, however, and sated decades of wondering about Hansen, so yes, definitely, if this is your sort of thing, read it.

In the Dark: The True Story of the Blackout Ripper by Simon Read

A long time ago in a state far, far away, I joined a writer’s forum. One fateful day, a thread entitled “Death” appeared. I was a semi-goth, an enormous fan of a certain Endless in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman universe, and so of course couldn’t resist. I clicked. And promptly clicked not only with the thread author (who wanted tips on how to write character deaths), but two people fated to become some of my favorite published authors and humans: Nicole Gilbertson and Simon Read.

We’ll talk about Nicole’s marvelous book someday soon. For now, because this is a true crime spree, we’ll focus on Simon. Simon had just published his first true crime book, On the House: the Bizarre Killing of Michael Malloy. I bought it. I read it (in paperback, no less). We will talk about it in depth at a later time because it is a scream. So of course, when Simon released In the Dark, I picked it up immediately. And damn, it was dark. While On the House was darkly humorous, this one is darkly horrific. It concerns a series of murders committed during the London Blitz during WWII, where four young women were brutalized and killed, and two more attacked but survived, in less than a week. You may have seen the story of the Blackout Ripper on Murder Maps, but Simon’s book takes you deep into the time and the events. You’ll come away with air raid sirens wailing in your ears, brick dust from shattered buildings on your skin, and the scent of blood in your nose.

Would I recommend this book if Simon wasn’t a friend of mine? Yes. A thousand times yes. If you like reading about murder, world wars, and history, then this one’s for you.

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Poisoned Blood: A True Story of Murder, Passion, and an Astonishing Hoax by Philip E. Ginsburg

This is ostensibly a story about a murderous mother, but in many ways it’s also about mediocre white men. There’s the mediocre white man who wrote it, who got away with some truly egregious typos, lackluster chapter endings, and calling redirect “recross” when describing a witness being questioned in court. (Whoever edited this was just as mediocre as the author, or possibly just burned out and not even phoning it in.) There were times I nearly deleted this book from my Kindle with prejudice.

Then there are the mediocre white male doctors, who, when faced with a young woman presenting with textbook arsenic poisoning symptoms, the same symptoms that had led to her father’s death only a few years before, threw up their hands and said, “Whelp, must be all in her noggin!” I was about ready to strangle me some medical professionals by the end. The profession is rescued by a decidedly sharp young white male ER doctor who looks at the symptoms, checks for signs of arsenic poisoning in the poor girl’s nails, and promptly saves her life.

The book is rescued from the author and editors’ lack of polish by its subject: Marie Hilley, one of the most heinous and intriguing poisoners I’ve ever read about. This woman not only murdered her husband and attempted to murder her daughter in the coldest of cold blood, but slipped the hounds and spent years living under an assumed name. Well, names, because she faked her own death and then came back as her “twin sister.” Gods only know how many more people she would have arseniced to death if authorities hadn’t finally caught up with her, and she hadn’t died during an escape attempt. I hope someone else who isn’t a mediocre dude writes about her and her victims in more depth someday, because damn.

My Mother, A Serial Killer by Hazel Baron

Mid-20th Century Australia. A mother lives a nomadic existence with her kids. The ones she drugged so she could murder their father one night. And had in the car while she shtupped her boy toy. Yeah, those kids weren’t all right, especially not since Mummy constantly resorted to murder and arson to get everything she wanted. Few people were safe from her, including her kids.

And she might have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for her remarkably brave daughter.

This book captures so well the topsy-turvy world of kids who know something’s wrong, who are mistreated and neglected, who witness terrible things, but still love their mama. It shows how murder and the bringing down of a murderer rips siblings apart. And it shows so vividly the fear and turmoil you go through when you’ve got to turn your own mother in.

Plus, it’s in Australia. How can you resist that?

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Trace Evidence: The Hunt for the I-5 Serial Killer by Bruce Henderson

So after the disaster that was Poisoned Blood, I tried to swear off true crime books by men for a while. Then this one popped up in Kindle’s Today’s Deals. Bastards. It was about serial murderer Roger Kibbe, so I had to read it. I’d just seen a New Detectives episode about the case and wanted to know more.

It’s wild. It has some of the best trace evidence examiners ever, a neat bit of profiling that helped detectives link cases across several jurisdictions, the most fucked up idea of an “autopsy” I’ve ever seen a coroner perform, a sex worker with nerves of steel and lungs to match, and detectives who refuse to give up.

There’s a few really annoying bits where the author gets up on a conservative-sounding soapbox to whine about how hard the cops have it what with budgets and rules and stuff, but the rest of the book is really good. And there are a lot of women who are showcased as absolute legends. This is a male author who even treats the sex workers as full humans, women cops as people well worth admiring for their skill, and even has some compassion for a serial killer’s wife. He done pretty good.

And if you like people looking through microscopes at tiny things that weave a cage of evidence around a murderer, this book is definitely for you.

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The I-5 Killer by Ann Rule

No, no, not that I-5 Killer. This is about the other I-5 Killer, the football player one. (Yeah, there’s been too many serial killers who travel the I-5 corridor.)

So this guy, Randy Woodfield, is proof that a man can have a good upbringing, popularity, fame, and seemingly every advantage, and still be a wrong ‘un. He’s not a sympathetic killer. The things he did to his victims are super hard to read about. We spend a lot of time with Beth Wilmot, who he raped and shot in the head, leaving her for dead beside her murdered best friend. She was phenomenally strong, seeing the case through to conviction. She’s an amazing young woman.

Ann Rule does her usual marvelous job weaving together the story, honoring the victims, and showing us as much of the why behind a serial murderer as we can figure.

This one’s especially memorable for the fact that in prison, he wooed and dumped a woman who’d tried to murder all of her kids. Wow. Prison romances can be deeply weird, y’all.

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Practice to Deceive by Ann Rule

This is two true crime books in one, pretty much, plus some true crime stories, all contained in one generations-spanning narrative. It begins with an unsolved homicide on Whidbey Island, then segues to the past to trace the tragic family history of one of the people central to the murder plot. We see the brutal killing of a young mother, and watch the damage from that deed send cracks through the lives of her husband, children, and grandchildren. Those cracks spread laterally into the lives of some of their friends and coworkers as well.

There’s the side plot of one of the conspirators marrying a rich oil man for his money, and you’ll hold your breath expecting him to be murdered any minute. Throw in an international manhunt, the search for the murder weapon which leads to a very unlikely place, and a few side tragedies, and you have a book that’s very difficult to set aside.

Ann Rule not only had a talent for crime writing; she knew how to find intriguing crimes and examine all their complexity. And this one’s a perfect showcase of her talent.

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Small Sacrifices by Ann Rule

I couldn’t just leave Diane Downs at the brief mention of her in the I-5 Killer, right? Of course not.

This is a case study not only of a murdering mother, but of a female sexual predator. They exist. They wreck lives just as surely as male predators do. And it’s intriguing to see the gendered hate play out nearly exactly as it would if the genders had been reversed. Diane had to use wiles more than force, but otherwise, you could flip the pronouns and the story would be nearly the same.

The worst thing about this book is what she does to the kids. When they’re no longer useful to her alive, she kills one and maims the other two for life. The descriptions of what the ER physicians saw and experienced when trying to save these children’s lives is graphic and harrowing. Definitely skip if you can’t detatch. I’m usually pretty good at handling gory tragedy, but there were times I cried, and some of the scenes will never fade.

The surviving kids get the happiest ending possible under the circumstances, so hold on to that.

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Della’s Web: The Many Husbands of a Suburban Black Widow by Aphrodite Jones

Are you in the market for a book about a woman who murdered one husband, tormented two others, and tried to set yet another one on fire? Yes? Excellent, because I found it for you.

You’re welcome.

It’s remarkable how much chaos one woman can sow, and sad how many lives she can destroy. Della Hall actually reminds me a bit of the former and aspiring Insurrectionist In Chief. She has his grandiosity, his emphasis on appearances, his obsession with money and status, his glib but often nonsensical tongue. But she didn’t have the rich daddy to give her an unearned boost, so she grifted her way up, and resorted to blatant violence when things weren’t going her way.

This book is a case study in why domestic violence perpetrated by women needs to be taken seriously.

The Embrace: A True Vampire Story by Aphrodite Jones

Disclaimer: I used to play Vampire: the Masquerade. I quite liked it, especially since I didn’t have to do a lot of math in order to do a campaign. And I’m very proud of that time I looted a copy of The Practical Cannibal’s Guide to Deep Frying from a creepy dude’s mansion.

It was great fun, is what I’m saying, and so I really have a hate-on for this pathetic little wanker who used the game to manipulate kids into helping him murder people.

You may remember this case: it was all over the news, because OMG TEEN VAMPIRES!!11! But it was just sociopathic asshole Rod Farrell and his poor brainwashed buddy Scott, playing at Vampirism being totes for realsies, murdering their hapless friend Heather’s wealthy parents for fun and profit, and getting caught easily because they were not, in fact, glamorous undead beings.

Aphrodite Jones does a gorgeous job of exploding inflated egos, busting myths, and pointing out how badly adults failed these kids. It’s good stuff. (Content note for Rod’s awful mom grooming a younger friend of his, and religious abuse by his grandfather. Ugh.)

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A Fever in the Heart by Ann Rule

This story is so freaking tragic. I mean, pretty much every true crime story is in some way, but the level of machination and betrayal, the shattered trust, the ruined lives, are just all extra here. It’ll certainly make you think thrice before giving your old high school coach a place to stay.

If you want a perfect case study of lust, selfishness, and manipulation, this is it. Ann Rule took decades before she felt up to doing this case justice, and she really did. Every single one of the people in it is fully realized. Despite how tangled events are, she keeps everything clear. And if your heart doesn’t break by the end, you probably need to stop reading true crime for a while.

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First Degree Rage: The True Story of ‘The Assassin,’ An Obsession, and Murder by Paula May

When a dude once accused of assassinating the Prime Minister of Sweden gets murdered in America, you know you’ve gotta read the book about it. Even if you have to put up with Paula May’s clumsy and obnoxious attempts to convert you to evangelical Christianity throughout. Which are only slightly more boring than her endless rambling about the food she and her fellow detectives ate while they were pursuing a murderer. And her endless unnecessary conversations.

This book needed a ruthless editor, and didn’t have one.

However, when Paula May climbs down out of her pulpit, puts down her knife and fork, and gets to the investigation, this is a really compelling story. It’s terrifying in places. Major content notes for domestic violence and stalking. And hot damn, is the attention to detail when it comes to collecting forensic evidence ever deeply satisfying. You probably won’t want to drop cash money on this one, but if you can borrow from the library or Kindle Unlimited, it’s great if you skim the irrelevant bits.

PS Sorry, Paula May – despite your best efforts, I am still an atheist. And girl, your justification for the death penalty is spectacularly awful. Your god is just as evil as that man you put away. Wow.  

The FBI Killer by Aphrodite Jones

While we’re on the theme of law enforcement officers murdering people, let’s read about one of the only FBI agents to get caught and convicted for murdering an informant.

Even after finishing this book, I’m not sure if Mark Putnam was always a wrong ‘un, or if he just went off the rails when he allowed himself the luxury of an affair. Either way, he’s one horribly evil bastard. Jones does a good job showing that while Susan Davis Smith was morally questionable, opportunistic, and fatally naive, she in no way deserved what happened to her. And Iordy, does she ever show what a sad shitshow poor rural areas can be.

You will love seeing this arrogant asshole of a murderer slowly see all of his avenues of escape cut off. His poor wife and kids, though.

Content note for murder of a pregnant woman.

Murder in the Family by Burl Barer

Back in my youth, I was an inveterate reader of former FBI agent John Douglas’s books. In Journey Into Darkness, he presented the case of Kirby Anthoney, who murdered his aunt and young nieces. As it was just one story among many, so there wasn’t a great amount of detail. But there was more than enough to make this horrible man stick in my memory forever.

I knew Anthoney was bad, but Burl Barer digs deep into his past and reveals that he’s much, much worse. All the content warnings for rape, child sexual assault, domestic violence, and really graphic descriptions of murder. Barer doesn’t spare us from the reality of a family massacre.

The writing is unpolished, but that lack of professional smoothness is quickly forgiven. This is one of the most sincere true crime books I’ve ever read. Barer treats the victims with kindness and respect, and as much dignity as an author can grant when their murderer stripped their dignity away. He treats the trans victim whom Anthoney is suspected of killing with the same consideration as the cis woman and children. He also dwells longer on the loved ones than many writers; he shows in some detail just how shattering a murder is to family and friends, and how important justice is, even though it often doesn’t do much more than bandage the wounds.

One of my favorite aspects of this book was seeing FBI profiler Judson Ray, who provided a profile of the murderer and also testified at his trial. Agent Ray is the first African American and also the first attempted murder-for-hire survivor to become a profiler. He’s a fascinating person, and I was glad to see Barer devote so many pages to him.

This is a difficult read, but definitely worthwhile.

That was a heart-rending, often infuriating, and always compelling collection of books. The truth of true crime is that these are real people who had terrible things done to them, and real people doing the terrible things, and also real people trying hard to stop the terrible things.

In the end, as long as they’re not treated as pure entertainment, these books can also be improving books. They can improve our compassion for the victims and survivors, however imperfect they may be. They can deepen our understanding of why people do terrible things, and urge us to support science, programs, and community efforts that may prevent folks from going that wrong, and stop them from harming many others when they do. And they can help us appreciate life while we’ve got it, because there are absolutely no guarantees.

Smell the roses and watch your surroundings, my darlings, but above all: live as fully as you can.


Featured Image credit: Verkeorg

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