Let’s be honest, we all have a morbid curiosity when it comes to famous murders. The non-fiction genre has been around for centuries, first appearing on the scene way back in the 1600s, but the narrative style of true crime really took off in the 1960s with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Since then, books that examine actual crimes (most popularly, homicide cases) have become an enduring genre in the entertainment world.
We are currently in the golden age of true crime TV thanks to Netflix’s Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Tiger King, and Making a Murderer, HBO’s The Jinx, and FX’s American Crime Story. And now the rise of armchair sleuths on TikTok and podcasts such as Serial, Dirty John, and My Favorite Murder, true crime has never been more popular.
If you are hooked on unsolved murders and want to dive deeper into specific cases, this reading list is a good place to start. What makes true crime books interesting is the style each one adopts. Some of these true crime books read like investigative journalism laying the facts bare for readers to draw their own conclusions, while others read like fiction with a narrative style that sucks you in from the get-go. Some books on this list revisit old unsolved cases and present possible solutions while others bring a different perspective by incorporating illustrations to the storytelling. This is the best list to get you started in the true crime genre.
True Crime Classics
No list is complete without the classic true crime books that started it all.
In Cold Blood
Widely considered the most famous true crime book of all time, this pioneering masterpiece explores the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Written in a suspenseful, reads-like-fiction style unheard of for its time, In Cold Blood was an instant bestseller when it was first published in 1966. Infused with gory details collected from six years of research, this is the best place to start if you’re new to narrative non-fiction.
Helter Skelter is the #1 bestselling true crime book of all time. The Tate-LaBianca murders committed by Charles Manson’s followers in 1969 marked the end of ’60s hippie counterculture and became one of the most infamous cases in American history. Author Vincent Bugliosi was the prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial, and this book is his enthralling account of how he built his case.
Books About Serial Killers
These non-fiction books focus on some of the most infamous solved and unsolved serial killer cases of all time.
The Stranger Beside Me
In 1971, while working the late-shift at a Seattle crisis clinic, true-crime writer Ann Rule struck up a friendship with a sensitive, charismatic young coworker: Ted Bundy. Three years later, eight young women disappeared in seven months, and Rule began tracking a brutal mass murderer. But she had no idea that the “Ted” the police were seeking was the same Ted who had become her close friend and confidant.
Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Hunt for the Nation's Most Elusive Serial Killer
Robert Graysmith was on staff at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1969 when Zodiac first struck, triggering in the resolute reporter an unrelenting obsession with seeing the hooded killer brought to justice. In this definitive account of the Zodiac killer, Graysmith reveals hundreds of facts previously unreleased, including the complete text of the killer’s letters.
I'll Be Gone in the Dark
The true story of the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California during the 70s and 80s, written by Michelle McNamara, the gifted and obsessive journalist who died tragically while investigating the case. Though McNamara died before the killer was caught (a mere two months after this book was released), her work renewed interest in the case and was ultimately turned into an HBO docu-series.
Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. Jeffrey Dahmer. The names of notorious serial killers are usually well-known; they echo in the news and in public consciousness. But most people have never heard of Israel Keyes, one of the most prolific and meticulous serial killers in modern history. American Predator is the ambitious culmination of years of interviews with key figures in law enforcement and in Keyes’s life, and research uncovered from classified FBI files.
Historical True Crime
A starter kit of books about murders and mayhem that took place long ago.
Killers of the Flower Moon
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma but one by one the Osage were killed and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. Killers of the Flower Moon is the haunting true story of one of the most shocking series of murders and the subsequent creation of the FBI as a result of the mystery.
The Poisoner's Handbook
Equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner’s Handbook chronicles the birth of scientific detective work. Taking place in 1918 New York City when poisons made for the perfect crime and judicial corruption was rampant, this is the perfect true crime book for fans of forensic science and detective TV shows.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper
Miscast in the media for nearly 130 years, the victims of Jack the Ripper finally get their full stories told in The Five. People have always been obsessed with Jack the Ripper but this is the first mainstream book to focus on the women he killed and is an eye-opening and chilling reminder that life for middle-class women in Victorian London could be full of social pitfalls and peril.
Cults & Religious Crime Books
When fanaticism, religious fervor, and mass hysteria collide, it’s often a deadly combination.
The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple
The definitive story of preacher Jim Jones, who was responsible for the 1970s Jonestown Massacre, the largest murder-suicide in American history. In this riveting non-fiction, author Jeff Guinn researched thousands of pages of FBI files, traveled to Jones’s Indiana hometown, where he spoke to people never previously interviewed, and uncovered fresh information from Jonestown survivors.
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
The absolutely enthralling book that inspired the Hulu show with the same name, Under the Banner of Heaven takes readers inside America’s isolated Mormon Fundamentalist communities. At the core of Jon Krakauer’s book are brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, who insist they received a commandment from God to kill a blameless woman and her baby girl.
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
This is a great primer if you are looking to cover a lot of ground in the cult genre. Through juicy storytelling and cutting original research, Cultish exposes the verbal elements that make a wide spectrum of communities “cultish,” revealing how they affect followers of groups as notorious as Heaven’s Gate, but also how they pervade our modern start-ups, Peloton leaderboards, and Instagram feeds.
True Crime Graphic Novels
If pictures are worth a thousand words, then these illustrated accounts of true crimes have plenty to say.
My Friend Dahmer
By now, everyone knows the story of the cannibalistic serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, but this graphic memoir gives a fascinating and intimate look at Jeffrey Dahmer through the eyes of one of his high school friends. A bestseller and winner of multiple awards, My Friend Dahmer is an iconic true crime memoir that was even turned into a 2017 major motion picture.
Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?
One of the great writers in the field of true crime literature, Harold Schechter, teams up with five-time Eisner Award-winning graphic novelist Eric Powell to bring you the tale of one of the most notoriously deranged serial killers in American history, Ed Gein.
Murder Book: A Graphic Memoir of a True Crime Obsession
In Murder Book, lifelong true-crime obsessive and New Yorker cartoonist Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell tries to puzzle out the answer. An unconventional illustrated exploration of a lifetime of Ann Rule super-fandom, amateur armchair sleuthing, and a deep dive into the high-profile murders that have fascinated the author for decades