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5 True Crime Book Classics Every Crime Junkie Must Read

Updated on April 21, 2016

1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood, one of the many works of famed author Truman Capote, was a book most definitely ahead of its time. Its extraordinary success opened the door to true crime genre of today.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote | Source

Capote’s book, often considered the original true crime book of the genre,recounts the horrendous, brutal murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in the pre-dawn hours of November 15, 1959.

Richard “Dick” Eugene Hickock and Perry Smith had first become acquainted in a Kansas prison. Prior to their release, they conspired with one another to rob a wealthy rancher about which another inmate, Floyd Wells, had told them.

It will probably never be known just exactly what happened in the Clutter home that night but according to Smith’s account as told to Capote, he was solely responsible for the murders after becoming enraged at Hickock during an argument about the events taking place..

Readers are left with a sense Capote is sympathetic to Hickock and especially Smith, the latter who seemed to live an especially troubled childhood. No doubt Capote, who seems to have lived a less-than-idyllic childhood and lived an open homosexual lifestyle as an adult (long before it was acceptable), felt a special bond with Smith.

Classified by many as the best true crime book even today, In Cold Blood is 343 pages of fascinating storytelling of two criminals who gained outstanding notoriety across America in a single November night.

2. Helter Skelter by Victor Bugliosi

On a hot August night in 1969 Los Angeles, actress Sharon Marie Tate thought about nothing much more than the impending birth of her baby, which was due in only two weeks. As she turned in for the evening, she had no way of knowing she and her baby would never meet face to face.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi | Source

In another part of town lived a “spiritual” family on a rundown ranch which, in its heyday, had also served as a movie set for westerns. Their leader was none other than Jesus Christ, as he liked to claim, but most just called him Charlie. He was Charles Manson.

Charlie controlled his family with sex and drugs; during the use of the latter was when he often philosophized about life and spirituality with sayings such as “No sense makes sense.” Many of his “deep thoughts” were garnered from songs by the Beetles, whom Charlie believed were communicating with him through their lyrics on how to usher in an apocalypse by initiating a war between the races.

And that’s how Sharon Tate came to die along with her friends Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Jay Sebring in a Hollywood home with “PIG” written on the door in blood and the teenage Steven Parent dead in his car in the driveway.

Next was Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their Los Angeles home; the words “Helter Skelter”, “Rise”, and “Death to Pigs” written about the home in blood.

The bloody words, Charlie said, would lead the police to believe the murders were the work of Black Panther Party members. When their suspicions were announced publicly, it would enrage white people while blacks would be resentful of the accusations.

Although Charlie was good – very good – at controlling his family, for one conscientious young woman, the mind manipulation nor drugs was enough and because of her courage, no one else died at the direction of Charles Manson and a race war never came to be.

3. Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson

Champion equestrian Joan Robinson and plastic surgeon Dr. John Hill had been married for eleven years when he began an affair with single mom and hellcat Ann Kurth in 1968. Before long, the doc had deserted his wife and son and was playing house with the new woman in his life.

Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson
Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson | Source

A scenario rather scandalous, in and of itself, in 1968.

Joan’s father, Ash Robinson was known to have an almost obsessive-like relationship with his daughter and when he learned of son-in-law’s absconsion, he immediately set out to make things right for his daughter. And after some underhanded maneuvering, Dr. Hill came home with his tale tucked between his legs.

But he never gave up the other woman in his life.

Dr. Hill wanted to be with Ann. He proclaimed his love for her. He promised to marry her. But how was such possible without the wrath of his father-in-law?

When Joan suddenly fell ill and died on March 19, 1969, it seemed the road to freedom had been paved for the talented doctor.

4. Small Sacrifices by Ann Rule

On the night of May 19, 1983, single mother Diane Downs rushed into the McKenzie-Willamette Hospital in Springfield,Oregon with a gunshot wound to her arm. She excitedly told medical professionals that an unknown assailant attempted to carjack her and shot her three children.

Small Sacrifices by Ann Rule
Small Sacrifices by Ann Rule | Source

Sadly, one child died and the youngest would be paralyzed for life. Cheryl, Diane's oldest child, would be thrust into the terrifying position of having to tell investigators about the actual events the night of the shooting; events that were much different than her mother's.

As Cheryl struggled to survive and fearing her mother's wrath, investigators learn Diane had a romantic relationship with married man Robert Knickerbocker. Many times, Robert made it clear he never wanted children so the relationship would never be more than the sexual relationship it was. Eventually, have grown weary of Diane's motherly obligations, Robert ended the relationship and remained with his wife.

Diane Downs' narcissistic mind hatched a plan to rid herself of those burdensome children and pursue her relationship with Robert.

5. Devil In the White City by Erik Larson

In 1890, Chicago is a rapidly growing city and eager to prove itself to the more established Eastern cities of the United States. Propelled by its huge civic pride, Chicago wins its bid to host the World’s Fair. Soon after, two of the city’s leading architects, Daniel Burnham and John Root, are given artistic control over the buildings at the Fair.

Devil In the White City by Erik Larson
Devil In the White City by Erik Larson | Source

But there are dark forces swirling about the Windy City.

Daniel Burnham faces a series of obstacles that would have driven another man to utter despair such the death of his partner early in the construction process to impossibly tight deadlines, labor unrest, a poor economy, and the worst Chicago winter on record

Just west of the World's Fair site, the town's new doctor is constructing his "World's Fair Hotel." In truth, the building is a well-thought, very well-designed, large home with hidden passages and torture chambers. No one is aware however as Holmes is known to frequently hire and fire construction workers so no one was familiar with all aspects of the project.

It all comes to head as described in Erik Larson's true crime classic Devil In the White City.

© 2016 Kim Bryan

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    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 16 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      How do I know this is a fabulous list of "must reads?" Because I've read them all & Kim has given valid reasons you would love these books! All of them excellently written & books that cannot be put down!

      Great reviews, Kim.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 16 months ago from Auburn, WA

      I need to read the last three on the list. Great hub. Shared.