Criminal Leanings #5 – My Top 5 True Crime Books

I haven’t done one of these in a while, and as I am now embarking upon a career as a True Crime writer, I thought it was timely to share the five books that have most impressed me in the field. Obviously, I’d love to hear yours, so feel free to share.

5. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote: Probably the first true crime book I ever read, and one that has remained with me since. I actually mention it in After She Vanished (Dunnigan visits Miley in the nursing home where he is a virtual prisoner to loan him a copy), and while Capote is another one of those writers who I think was probably a pretty challenging human being, he created such beautiful prose, so I find it difficult not to admire him. In Cold Blood (published in 1966) tells the story of the brutal murder of a family in Kansas, and the subsequent trial of the men convicted for it, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. Capote (and we must give credit to his research assistant, Harper Lee – yes THAT Harper Lee! – who helped him with interviews and some of the investigation) manages to imbue the reader with absolute disgust and horror at the crime, while not shirking from presenting the murderers as sympathetic, flawed and deeply damaged individuals. Some commentators have criticized Capote for authoring what he called a ‘non-fiction novel’, meaning that he presented dialogue from memory and shifted some scenes in the timeline to make the story flow more effectively, but there can be no denying that In Cold Blood revolutionized the genre and left its mark on everything that followed. A work of stark beauty and genius.

4. The Stranger Beside Me – Ann Rule: If you want to be a true crime writer (or podcaster) today, or indeed if you count yourself a true crime aficionado, you need to familiarize yourself with the books of Ann Rule. And this is her best known work. The Stranger Beside Me is an account of the life and crimes of Ted Bundy, probably the world’s most notorious and talked about serial killer. Rule knew him before and after his incarceration (she met him while he was a psychology student at the University of Washington, and she liked and admired him). When he came onto the police radar as a suspect in several murders, Rule refused to accept it could have been him, and it was only during his trial (at which he represented himself), that she realised this kind, empathetic man with whom she had been so close, was actually a dangerous psychopath. The Stranger Beside Me tells the story from the point-of-view of Rule, looking on as this horror story unfolds, and as it dawns on her how close she probably came to being one of Bundy’s victims herself. The book has been updated as the case has opened up, and while it was first published in 1980, the most redcent new edition came out in 2008, so the story now includes Bundy’s execution and new pieces of evidence that have emerged about murders we can now attribute to Bundy. Rule is a wonderful writer with a real sense of warmth, urgency and a great understanding of the human mind. This book is a must-read.

3. The General – Paul Williams: Written by my friend and fellow journalist Paul Williams, The General is an exhaustively researched and colourfully told account of the life and times of Ireland’s best known gangster. What sets this book apart (and explains why it is so celebrated and has been adapted for film many times) is that Paul knew his subject, Martin Cahill, so well. He spent time in his company, and interviewed many of the criminals he worked with and the police who tried to bring him in. The book contains grudging respect, at times, for this individual who came from one of the poorest places in Ireland, graduated from a horrible industrial school, and went on to become one of the most powerful figures in the Irish criminal underworld. The text also shows how truly dangerous Cahill could be: it does not turn away from the terrible violence he was capable of, nor the misery he caused to those whose lives he touched (planting a bomb under the car of Ireland’s leading forensic scientist, for example, when he came to believe he was the man most likely to catch him). Paul Williams is probably Ireland’s greatest and most celebrated crime journalist, and for good reason. The General is a classic in its field.

2. The People Who Eat Darkness – Richard Lloyd Parry: in 2000, a 21-year-old British woman named Lucie Blackman moved to Tokyo where she found work as a hostess at a club in the Roppongi district. She was not a stripper or an escort, in fact the role she adopted was precisely defined by the codes of Japanese life but it included the opportunity to make more money: hostesses were obliged to see some of their clients beyond the dark safety of the club, walking them home or going out with them for food or drinks elsewhere. It was during an outing like this, less than three months after arriving in Tokyo, that Lucie disappeared. Richard Lloyd Parry’s account is fascinating in its close look into the ways the Japanese justice system works and its exploration of the sinister underbelly of what (we are told) is one of the safest cities in the world. He eschews easy answers as to what drives a person to act with depravity, and instead shows us every angle of the case. Be mindful that this is not one for the faint-hearted – Parry brings us to torture clubs, discusses the intricacies of carving up a body and offers us a killer with no real motive. As dark a modern tale as you will find.

1. Death in December – Michael Sheridan. A great companion piece for those of us who have binge-listened to Audible’s West Cork podcast, Death in December recounts the mind-boggling twists and turns of the 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier. Sheridan, who is a journalist and theatre director, manages the virtually impossible by setting out the various levels of this most complex of cases in a simple, direct and logical manner. The book also presents us with an in-depth character study of Ian Bailey, the man many believe is responsible for the french film producer’s death. It would be so easy to paint Bailey as a monster, but Sheridan instead gives us something much more interesting – here is a man who spotted an opportunity to reinvent himself not once, but multiple times, and grabbed it with both hands. The murder allowed Bailey to cast himself as an investigative journalist, a victim of police corruption, a put-upon poet, a legal mastermind, an exile… for someone like Bailey, a natural social chameleon, this was just too good an opportunity to pass up. The book never loses sight of the fact that this is really the story of a young woman’s violent death, and refuses to permit Bailey to take centre-stage, which he clearly wants to do. A sensitively told account of a murder case that continues to make headlines after more than two decades.

I’ll visit True Crime podcasts and TV shows in other installments. In the meantime, I’d love to hear which books have fascinated and terrified you. Thanks for reading!

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