My love/hate affair with true crime can be blamed on one man: Geraldo Rivera.
I grew up on a farm. Stark death was commonplace, where we were taught that pigs were for slaughtering, turkeys for plucking and roasting, and the giant pit in the back field was best avoided, what with the stench from the cow carcasses in varying states of decay. My mother, perhaps in response to this, created a Disney-friendly home in which things like the Kennedy assassination or the Iran hostage crisis were not discussed. But even Mom couldn’t monitor our media consumption all the time. Mom must have had a meeting after work on that fateful night in 1988 when Geraldo’s interview with Charles Manson aired. I hung on every word, and my fascination with murder began.
I’ve easily consumed a thousand true crime titles since then. I’ve read the great and not-so-great, and even as I type this, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson waits patiently on my nightstand. Here are five books that I think exemplify all that is good—and deeply disturbing—about the genre:
The day after Geraldo’s infamous interview, I checked this book out of the library and started reading. That night, I slept in my closet, convinced the Manson Family was lurking outside our farmhouse, waiting to butcher us.
This book offers insight into what life was like in Los Angeles that fateful summer of 1969, when the hippie counterculture took a dark turn. Bugliosi’s accounting of the horrific murders, the fear that spread through L.A., and the roadblocks both the L.A. Sheriff’s Office and the LAPD faced when trying to solve the crimes. If you can get past Bugliosi’s enormous ego (though admittedly, he earned it) it’s a fascinating, terrifying read.
I’ve found Ann Rule to be hit or miss, but she slammed it out of the ballpark with this one. A detailed look at the blood-soaked life of serial killer Ted Bundy, Rule’s story is made all the more fascinating because she knew the man. Not well—they worked together manning a suicide hotline at one point—and Rule wisely keeps herself a background character in this book, something I wish she’d done in the dismal Green River, Running Red; but I digress. What disturbs me most about this book—and really, it’s not the book, it’s the subject—is how charming, unapologetic, and chillingly bloodthirsty Bundy truly was. There are monsters among us.
What do you do when a man accused of murdering his whole family, for which he’s already been convicted, personally reaches out to you and asks you to cover the retrial, at one point inviting you to stay with the accused man himself? If you’re Joe McGinniss, you respond with a resounding “Hell, yes!” and pack your bags.
The result of this pairing is Fatal Vision, a thorough account of the Jeffrey MacDonald murder retrial. There was a bit of controversy over this book, mostly because MacDonald didn’t like the conclusions McGinniss drew, but it’s definitely worth the read, if only for the goosebump-inducing moment in which McGinniss realizes that the man he’s spent so much time with is probably guilty.
Full disclosure: I love-love-love Truman Capote. Love him! But I’ll try to remain objective. After all, I didn’t care for Breakfast at Tiffany’s until I listened to Michael C. Hall narrate the audiobook. But as soon as I did, I was immediately in love with Tru again.
In Cold Blood terrified me because it epitomized everything I dreaded about murder: a farm family living in the middle of nowhere is slaughtered by two complete strangers during the night. Remember how I was sleeping in the closet while reading Helter Skelter? This book made me put an inside lock on the closet door.
This book caused some controversy as well, because Capote made up some scenes out of whole cloth for dramatic effect. However, Tru was brilliant and should never, ever be criticized. Understood? Now go read this book.
Finally, we come to the book that made me think, “You know, maybe it’s time to ease off of the true crime genre for a while.”
Columbine is a stark, sad look at the two boys who orchestrated a gruesome attack on their school. Remember, before Columbine, school shootings were not as widely reported. When these shootings were happening, the whole country stopped to watch in horror. This book took me right back to that day, working at the Block Island Grocery deli counter while listening to the radio for updates, unable to wrap my mind around what I was hearing.
Cullen does a commendable job of examining the lives of the shooters, the victims, the survivors, and the parents, dispelling myths and providing insight. But it’s a hard read. I’ll reread it again someday, I’m sure, but not until my nephews are safely out of school.
What are your top true crime picks? Were there any true crime books you wish you hadn’t read? Leave your comments below!
Stacey Longo is the author of Ordinary Boy (nominated for a Pushcart Prize) and Secret Things: Twelve Tales to Terrify. Her YA horror novel My Sister the Zombie is due out in 2016. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Shroud, Shock Totem, and the Litchfield Literary Review.
She is a past Hiram Award winner, and was a featured author on the 2014 Connecticut Authors Trail. A former humor columnist for the Block Island Times, she maintains a weekly humor blog at www.staceylongo.com.