Literary Links: True Crime Reads

When I first began working at the library, I quickly learned that most staff could walk directly to the true-crime section, having long ago memorized its Dewey Decimal classification. Novels of mystery and suspense fly off the library shelves, so it’s not surprising that their nonfiction counterparts are also hugely popular. Like a good mystery novel, true crime provides a glimpse into the darker side of human nature. Unlike the fictional stories where the good guy almost always wins out, true-crime books often feature crimes that remain unsolved or criminals whose true motivations are scarily unclear. But true crime also offers a satisfying look into the process involved in crime solving and the real-life individuals whose dogged pursuits are often the key to solving the case. Let’s take a look at some of the new true-crime reads on the library’s shelves.

The Phantom Prince book cover

Ann Rule is the queen of true crime and her book “The Stranger Beside Me” really set the genre in motion. That book examined the crimes of serial killer Ted Bundy, with whom Rule had worked. Bundy remains a popular figure in true crime, evident in the recent reissue of Elizabeth Kendall’sThe Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy.” Kendall documents her relationship with Bundy and the experiences of her daughter Molly, who saw him as a father figure. This new edition features never-before-seen photos and a chapter written by Molly about growing up with the serial killer.

Not every serial killer is a “Ted Bundy” type either in appearance or methodology. This means there really isn’t a set model for how to go about finding and capturing one. Katherine M. Ramsland’sHow to Catch a Killer: Hunting and Capturing the World’s Most Notorious Serial Killers” examines how several different killers have ultimately been caught using varying methods. Sometimes cases come together because of the mistakes a killer made, but often it’s the particular methods the police have discovered and employed in their investigation that leads to the arrest.

Readers who enjoy historical true-crime stories, should check out “Not a Gentleman’s Work: The Untold Story of a Gruesome Murder at Sea and the Long Road to Truth” by Gerard T. Koeppel. This is an actual “locked-room” styleNot a Gentleman's work book cover mystery in which a ship’s captain, his wife and the second mate were brutally ax-murdered. The other passengers claim to have seen or heard nothing, but clearly one of them is the guilty party. Koeppel’s book analyzes the court case that followed and the man who was found guilty, but he also delves into the stories of the other individuals on board the ship whose guilt may have been overlooked.

Murder in the hallowed halls of education is also quite intriguing. Becky Cooper’sWe Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence” examines the murder of a 23-year-old graduate student in 1969. Cooper explores the rumors that swirled around the case — was she murdered by a professor with whom she was having an affair? Or was it someone else? Cooper’s own working-class background and her struggle to find her place on the Ivy League campus come into play, too, as the book considers the crime’s ties to the culture and sexism of the elite academia in which it occurred.

Murder of Innocence book coverAs any library shelver will point out, the author with the most books on our shelves these days is probably the king of mystery and suspense, James Patterson. Most of his books are fiction, but Patterson is also venturing into nonfiction, exploring a variety of real-life crimes that are just as twisty as any of his imagined ones. “Murder of Innocence: True-Crime Thrillers” features two cases: one a hunt for a serial rapist (who also happens to be heir to a cosmetics fortune) and the other concerning an FBI agent who got into a deadly entanglement with a troublesome informant. In the same series, “Murder Thy Neighbor” features the story of a feud between neighbors that escalated to a horrific murder and the case of a woman who was caught up in an online war of words that turned deadly offline.

Sometimes crime runs in the family. “Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob” by Russell Shorto, recounts the life of Shorto’s grandfather, a mobster who founded a small-town crime ring in the middle of the last century. Shorto’s rich narrative explores his family’s roots and their connection to this uniquely American story of immigrants trying to attain the American dream through whatever means necessary.

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