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A true crime writer picks the best classic true crime books

By Sarah Weinman • March 06, 2022Recommended Reading

For true crime fans looking for classics of the genre, journalist and crime fiction aficionado Sarah Weinman is here to help. She's the Arthur Ellis Award-winning author of The Real Lolita and the new book, Scoundrel.

These are her six picks of must-read true crime books.

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

I reread this book, which recounts the complex battle between author Joe McGinniss and his subject, convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald, annually. The principals and the case matter less to Malcolm, who died in 2021, than the failures of the journalist-subject relationship—which she conveys with near perfection.

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Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk by Rebecca Godfrey

Fourteen-year-old Reena Virk's murder by several classmates was a flash point in Canada in the late 1990s. Godfrey renders the victim and the perpetrators in stunning, three-dimensional detail combining immersive journalism with a novelist's eye.

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Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America by Kali Nicole Gross

True-crime narratives by African-American authors are disappointingly scarce, so it's a welcome pleasure to recommend this one by Rutgers University history professor Gross. She masterfully reconstructs both a ghastly late-19th-century murder and the life of a woman tried for the crime. Gross also illuminates how the American criminal justice system continues to fail the Black community.

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Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

This gem of a book is as much about a series of murders that rocked small-town Alabama in the late 1970s as it is a thoughtful, empathetic portrait of Harper Lee, psychologically overwhelmed by the prospect of writing another book after To Kill a Mockingbird.

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Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York by Elon Green

Green's stunner of a debut scaffolds the gripping hunt for a serial killer over a heartfelt elegy to the lost lives of the murdered men, of a community ravaged by AIDS, and of a city in perpetual ruin and revival.

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Classic Crimes by William Roughead

The true-crime genre as we know it could not exist without the writings of Roughead (1870–1952), a Scottish lawyer with an avid interest in criminal trials. His accounts of trials he attended and cases he researched, collected in this single volume, are infused with delight and brio, as well as bursts of outrage at obvious wrongs. ◼

[While Classic Crimes is available only in paperback, Roughead’s collection Nothing But Murder can be read as an eBook.]

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Sarah Weinman is the author of the Arthur Ellis Award-winning nonfiction book The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World and the new book, Scoundrel.

Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free by Sarah Weinman

The true, almost-too-bizarre story of a man saved from Death Row by way of an unlikely friendship—developed in nearly 2000 pages of prison correspondence—with National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr., one of the most famous figures in the neo-conservative movement. Buckley wrote articles, fundraised and hired lawyers to fight for a new trial, eventually enlisting the help of Sophie Wilkins, a book editor with whom Smith would have a torrid epistolary affair. As a result of these friends' advocacy, Smith not only gained his freedom, he vaulted to the highest intellectual echelons as a bestselling author, an expert on prison reform, and a minor celebrity—only to fall, spectacularly, back to earth, when his murderous impulses once more prevailed.

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Photo by Andy Li on Unsplash

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