When I was eleven, we took a family road trip to Los Angeles. I remember many things about that trip—my drawings of the ever-changing landscape out the car window, seeing my first drag queen on Hollywood Boulevard, my dad bribing me with polished rocks (which I collected at the time) to go through the Hall of Horrors at the wax museum, my weird guilt over not loving my stuffed animal from Disneyland as much as I loved my stuffed animal from Universal Studios—but perhaps the thing I remember most vividly is reading a magazine in our hotel room.
The cover was a black and white photo of a beautiful woman who bore a slight resemblance to old photos of my grandmother, and the intriguing headline said something about the Black Dahlia. I didn’t know that that phrase meant, but it sounded mysterious and dangerous. Reading the article, I learned about aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, nicknamed “The Black Dahlia” by the sensational news media, whose badly mutilated body was found in a vacant lot in L.A. in 1947, and whose killer has never been identified. I was horrified. I was fascinated. I never recovered.
To this day, I am a true crime devotee. I devour documentaries like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and The Keepers. I listen to podcasts like Serial, My Favorite Murder (whose fans call themselves “Murderinos”), and Someone Knows Something. True crime is sometimes an awkward fascination to have. Critics call it ghoulish, and it makes for uncomfortable party chit-chat. The vast majority of true crime fanatics are female, so there’s a good dollop of misogyny mixed into the stigma. But since violence against women is such an epidemic (global estimates from the World Health Organization indicate that 35% of women have experienced physical or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime), it makes sense that we would want to know as many of the details as possible. Forewarned is forearmed, am I right?
Therefore, I recommend you embrace your true crime obsession, and I’ll provide you the reading list (and one documentary) to do it. And to all my fellow Murderinos out there, SSDGM!
My Friend Dahmer by Derf
Writer and artist Derf Backderf went to high school with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and this graphic novel of his recollections of Jeff from that time is supplemented with info gleaned later from court records and interviews to fill in Dahmer’s home life. If you’re looking for the details of Dahmer’s crimes, this is not that book. But it does provide perceptive insights into what turned Jeff—a weird guy, a neglected kid, a teenage alcoholic, a gay man at a time when it was not acceptable to be gay—into Jeffrey Dahmer the monster. This book left me with so many questions: What if an adult had paid attention and gotten Jeff some help? What if he’d been born in a different time, when being gay wasn’t a crime? This book was also recently made into a movie directed by Marc Meyers.
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
Crime writer Ann Rule was volunteering at a Seattle suicide crisis hotline in 1971 when she met young psychology student Ted Bundy. The two became friends. Ted was smart, caring, and handsome. Rule remembers thinking that if she were a bit younger or her daughters a bit older, Ted would be the perfect man. Little did she know, her friend Ted was an active serial killer of young women, who would eventually go on to murder over 30 women across seven states. Reading Rule’s account, I was chilled both by how well Bundy wore his person mask and by what a sadistic psychopath he was underneath it. Whereas My Friend Dahmer made me wonder if things could have turned out differently, The Stranger Beside Me convinced me that some people are just born monsters.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Larson contrasts the story of Daniel Hudson Burnham, architect and overseer of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, with the equally industrious but much more macabre proprietor of the World’s Fair Hotel, H. H. Holmes, one of America’s first and most notorious serial killers. Holmes constructed his hotel with secret rooms, gas chambers, and body chutes, to name just a few of the features that made it into the “Murder Castle.” The bodies (or portions of bodies) of nine victims were found in the hotel, Holmes confessed to murdering 27 people (although some of those were found to still be alive), and some estimates place the number of victims at closer to 200. This nonfiction book that reads more like a novel is a gripping look at a city on the verge of modernity, its triumphs and accomplishments, and its darker side.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
This book, considered by some to be the first “nonfiction novel,” is a pioneering work in the true crime genre and remains the second-best-selling book in the genre to this day. In 1959, a family of four was murdered in the small rural community of Holcomb, Kansas. Capote was intrigued by the crime, and he and his friend and fellow author Harper Lee traveled to Holcomb to investigate. Once the murderers, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested, Capote spent many hours interviewing them both and became especially fascinated with Smith. Capote tells the story from multiple, alternating perspectives, and his prose is absolutely gorgeous. This book was also made into a fantastic film, Capote, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Mindhunter by John E. Douglas
I’ll admit I haven’t read this one yet, but I just binged the Netflix series based on it, and I’ve got it on hold. I can’t wait. Douglas pioneered the technique of criminal profiling for the FBI. Using psychology (which had largely been pooh-poohed by the FBI previously) and by interviewing convicted serial killers such as Edmund Kemper, Jerry Brudos, and Richard Speck, Douglas developed profiles of various types of killers that he could use to predict a killer’s next move and hopefully catch them. The character of Jack Crawford in the Silence of the Lambs series is based on Douglas, as well as the profilers on the TV show Criminal Minds. Also, if you haven’t watched Mindhunter on Netflix yet, DO IT. So good.
In 1982, Kathie Durst disappeared. Her friends and family suspected that her husband had killed her, but her body was never found, and her husband, Robert Durst, said she just ran off. Since he was the son of a powerful New York family, the police believed him, and Kathie’s disappearance/murder has remained unsolved for over 30 years. In 2010, filmmaker Andrew Jarecki made a movie based on the crime, All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst (if you need to be cured of an attraction to Ryan Gosling, I’d recommend this film). After the movie came out, Durst himself contacted Jarecki to congratulate him on the film and offer himself for interviews. The result of those interviews is HBO’s The Jinx, the ending of which will leave you shocked, and—especially if you’re frustrated by the open-endedness of Making a Murderer and The Keepers—extremely satisfied.