When I worked in a public library, the true crime section and its readers were something of a “mystery” to me. We don’t get many questions about the genre, and it is not a type of literature we discuss often on Fiction-L or in readers’ advisory training sessions. Yet we know it is a popular section—if only because we find ourselves reshelving its well-worn paperbacks again and again as these quiet patrons help themselves.
How much more of a mystery, then, is the historical true crime subgenre? In recent years, titles such as Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher have become best sellers, but why do readers enjoy them so? Is it the emphasis on various historical eras? That the crimes described are more safely (or so we like to think) removed from our own time? Or is it simply that compelling stories, well told, will always command our interest, even if they include violence, theft, kidnapping, assassination, and murder?
The rise in popularity of historical true crime could be attributed to several factors. Both history and historical fiction continue to be popular with readers as they discover new favorite eras, for example, the Victorian era, the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age. Popular historical topics and their treatment can also change as new information comes to light; new insight into the motivations of the likes of Al Capone or Bonnie and Clyde becomes possible. And, of course, the general trend in nonfiction toward more “reads like fiction” storytelling means that nonfiction authors are on the lookout for stories featuring strong, even shocking story lines and memorable characters: think Jack the Ripper.
Just the facts, ma’am
For the purposes of this article, any true crime book set before World War II, regardless of the nature of the crime, can be considered “historical.” Narratives set after that period tend toward social history—political assassinations and civil rights violence, for example—which has a slightly different tone. The types of crimes investigated here are not nearly as central to their plotlines and atmosphere as the time period in which they are set, which range largely from the early 19th century through the 1940s. Classic titles that describe contemporary crimes but that are becoming historical as the years march on are not included (e.g., Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter). While these works are now classics, they were written with less historical perspective and therefore provide a different reading experience.
It is somewhat more challenging to group historical titles than it is their true crime counterparts, as there are fewer publishers and imprints dedicated solely to their production (e.g., St. Martin’s “True Crime Library”). Several titles here were published by Lyons Press; Kent State University Press features a “True Crime History” series; and the Minotaur imprint of St. Martin’s, previously a publisher of crime fiction, is branching out into “crime nonfiction” with Daniel Stashower’s The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot To Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War (Jan. 2013). Historical true crime titles are also not reliably placed in the familiar 364 Dewey classification; sometimes their historical subjects take precedence, and they are shelved in those categories instead.
Sorting through the evidence
When weeding your historical true crime sections, it is best to follow general weeding guidelines about culling titles based on condition (and all true crime books circulate heavily, so there will be condition issues). As a secondary consideration, try to note the titles already in your collection, so when new investigations into old crimes are published (on, say, Jack the Ripper or Al Capone), you have the opportunity to weed more dated books and replace them with updated ones.
While abhorrent to some, the appeal of historical true crime is not so difficult to imagine: vivid eras are brought to life in these accounts, many of which are assiduously researched, footnoted, and indexed. Furthermore, the story lines offer readers many compensations—the satisfaction of the compulsion to face the worst in human nature; the assurance that justice has been done; and, certainly not least, the chance to empathize with and offer witness to the victims in their hours of need.
Core titles below are marked with a star ().
Chadwick, Bruce. I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing That Shocked a New Nation. Wiley. 2009. 288p. bibliog. ISBN 9780470185513. $24.95.
George Wythe, a Declaration of Independence signer, suffered a lingering death by poisoning at the hand of his dissolute nephew. Chadwick combines the history of Wythe’s life, career, and friendship with Thomas Jefferson with that of the crime and trial—particularly noteworthy as the black star witness wasn’t allowed to testify against Wythe’s white nephew. (LJ 11/15/08)
Civil War & reconstruction
Alther, Lisa. Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys; The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance. Lyons: Globe Pequot. 2012. 304p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780762779185. $24.95.
Alther puts a new spin on the legendary Hatfield and McCoy feud, illustrating its roots as a bloody family conflict feeding on continued violence that began with the murder of Union soldier Harmon McCoy by a Confederate Hatfield cousin. Piggyback on the History Channel series.
Buhk, Tobin T. True Crime in the Civil War: Cases of Murder, Treason, Counterfeiting, Massacre, Plunder, & Abuse. Stackpole. 2012. 320p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780811710190. pap. $21.95.
Buhk provides an overview of crime and punishment during the Civil War era, including accounts of prison life in both the North and South as well as tales of counterfeiting, murder, draft riots, arson, and other war crimes. Not just for Civil War buffs. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 4/20/12)
Early 19th Century/Victorian Era
Colquhoun, Kate. Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing. Overlook, dist. by Penguin Group (USA). 2011. 352p. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781590206751. $24.95.
Who murdered Englishman Thomas Briggs in 1864 as he traveled home on the North London railway? In a story that predates the one found in Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck, police would chase the man they believed to be the killer all the way to America. But did they get the right man? (LJ 10/15/11)
Rosner, Lisa. The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare, and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes. Univ. of Pennsylvania. 2009. 336p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780812241914. $55; pap. ISBN 9780812221763. $24.95.
William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 people in early 19th-century Edinburgh and sold the corpses to local medical schools. Rosner places the sordid story in its historical and social context. (LJ 9/1/09)
Starr, Douglas. The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science. Knopf. 2010. 320p. ISBN 9780307266194. $26.95; pap. ISBN 9780307279088. $16.
Serial killer Joseph Vacher roamed the French countryside in the late 19th century, raping and killing at least 11 young women and men until he was apprehended by investigator Émile Fourquet and pioneering criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne. A 2011 Gold Dagger Award winner.
Stashower, Daniel. The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder. Dutton. 2007. 400p. bibliog. ISBN 9780425217825. pap. $15.
Part murder story, part literary history, part portrait of New York City in the 1840s, Stashower’s account of the murder of cigar salesgirl Mary Rogers also focuses on Edgar Allan Poe’s unorthodox attempt to revive his reputation by writing a detective story about the crime. (LJ 9/15/06)
Summerscale, Kate. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. Walker. 2008. 360p. illus. index. ISBN 9780802717429. pap. $16.
Summerscale masterfully reveals the details of the murder of three-year-old Saville Kent and his family’s and community’s secrets, along with their distrust of famed London detective James Whicher. Great Britain at its most Victorian. (LJ 2/1/08)
Jack the Ripper
No list of historical true crime titles would be complete without Jack the Ripper. To say that output on the murderer and his crimes is still prodigious would be an understatement—a brief search of Amazon for 2012 books on the subject yields no fewer than 30 titles (fiction and nonfiction). Here are some of the most noteworthy takes on the subject:
Two books in particular have been noted as “definitive” and are still available from used booksellers: Donald Rumbelow’s Jack the Ripper: The Complete Casebook (New York Graphic Soc. 1975; 2009. 336p. ISBN 9780140173956) and Paul Begg’s Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History (Longman. 2002. 224p. ISBN 9780582506312; pap. ISBN 9781405807128). Mystery author Patricia Cornwell’s 2003 title Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed (Putnam. 2002. ISBN 9780425192733. pap. $9.99) was a best seller and is widely held in libraries, although it is more of a latter-day investigation than a historical account, seeking to prove that artist Walter Richard Sickert was the Ripper. A newer title that considers ten of the most likely suspects in detail (and that assumes readers’ knowledge of the crimes) is Jack the Ripper: The Suspects (History Pr. 2011. 96p. ISBN 9780752462868. pap. $17.95), authored by members of the Whitechapel Society, a group dedicated to Ripper research. Robert House’s 2011 Jack the Ripper and the Case for Scotland Yard’s Prime Suspect (Wiley. 2011. 368p. ISBN 9780470938997 pap. $19.95) may also be a good current edition to acquire. Titles vary in quality, but if the sheer quantity published is any indication, readers will find and read whatever you provide.
Collins, Paul. The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Crown. 2011. 336p. illus. bibliog. ISBN 9780307592200. $26; pap. ISBN 9780307592217. $16.
Eclectic author Collins details the 1897 murder of William Guldensuppe by his lover, Augusta Nack—a crime made more sensational by Nack’s unorthodox method of disposing of the body (parts) and by the war between New York City’s biggest newspapers to scoop each other. (LJ 6/15/11)
Conway, J. North. The Big Policeman: The Rise and Fall of America’s First, Most Ruthless, and Greatest Detective. Lyons: Globe Pequot. 2010. 336p. ISBN 9781599219653. $24.95.
Legendary cop Thomas Byrnes rose through the ranks of the NYPD from 1854 to 1895, pioneering new methods of crime scene investigation, interrogation, and press manipulation. Never found guilty of misdeeds himself, his reputation would be tarnished by widespread police corruption. Conway’s King of Heists and Bag of Bones might also appeal. (LJ 1/11)
Geary, Rick. The Borden Tragedy: A Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Mass., 1892. NBM. 1997. 80p. ISBN 9781561631896. pap. $9.99.
Graphic artist/novelist Geary is a one-man historical true crime production machine: in addition to this chillingly illustrated re-creation of the double murder of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother, he has produced titles about Jack the Ripper, H.H. Holmes, the Lindbergh kidnapping, Sacco and Vanzetti, and many more. (SLJ 3/98)
Hagen, Carrie. We Is Got Him: The Kidnapping That Changed America. Overlook, dist. by Penguin Group (USA). 2011. 336p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781590200865. $27.95.
Hagen relates the little-known story of America’s first kidnapping and ransom attempt, outlining the abduction of four-year-old Charlie Brewster Ross in 1874 Philadelphia. The ransom notes (included here), an investigation mishandled from the start, and Charlie’s father’s increasing desperation to find his son make for a heartbreaking story.
Larson, Erik. The Devil In the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. Crown. 2003. 464p. illus. ISBN 9780609608449. $28; pap.
ISBN 9780375725609. $15.95.
Larson’s quickly paced narrative tells the story of the horrific crimes of Gilded Age–era Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes as well as the creation of the Chicago World’s Fair buildings by famed architect Daniel Burnham. Larson’s true crime titles include Thunderstruck and In the Garden of the Beasts. (LJ 1/03)
Millard, Candice. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. Doubleday. 2011. 352p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780385526265. $28.95.
Although generally termed history, this book won the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime. It chronicles the assassinated President Garfield; Charles Guiteau, his unbalanced killer; and Alexander Graham Bell, who tried desperately to invent a machine to help doctors find and remove the deadly bullet. James Swanson’s 2007 Fact Crime Winner, Manhunt, about Lincoln’s assassination, might be a good companion. (LJ 10/1/11)
Early 20th Century & Jazz Age
Blum, Deborah. The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). 2010. 336p. index. ISBN 9781594202438. $25.95; pap.
ISBN 9780143118824. $16.
New York City in the Jazz Age is the setting for Blum’s scientifically grounded history of poisonings, both accidental (most often with alcohol substitutes popular during Prohibition) and intentional. With solid portraits of chief medical officer Charles Norris and his toxicologist Alexander Gettler. (LJ 12/09)
Eig, Jonathan. Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster. S. & S. 2010. 480p. photogs. index. ISBN 9781416580591. $28; pap.
ISBN 9781416580607. $16.
Eig provides a compelling biography/history/crime mix, using his storytelling skills to outline infamous mob boss Al Capone’s career and personal life, as well as the unorthodox investigation that eventually put him behind bars. (LJ 3/1/10)
Perry, Douglas. The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago . Viking. 2010. 320p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780670021970. $25.95; pap. ISBN 9780143119227. $16.
Perry tells the story behind crime journalist Maurine Watkins’s creation of the play Chicago, providing strong character portraits of the unforgettable women who made 1920s Chicago famous for murder.
Phelps, M. William. The Devil’s Rooming House: The True Story of America’s Deadliest Female Serial Killer. Lyons: Globe Pequot. 2010. 303p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781599216010. $24.95; pap. ISBN 9780762770250. $14.95.
Known to her neighbors as “Sister Amy,” Amy Archer-Gilligan accepted one-time payments to care for the elderly residents in her home until their deaths but was eventually accused of poisoning them. Based on a wealth of primary sources, it’s also the story that inspired the play Arsenic and Old Lace.
Stokes, David R. The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial That Captivated America. Steerforth,
dist. by Random. 2011. 384p. illus. index. ISBN 9781586421861. $27.
In 1920s Fort Worth, TX, Baptist minister J. Frank Norris hoped to become a new national spiritual leader but instead found himself standing trial for shooting a local businessman during an argument. Stokes states that all the words and conversations presented here come directly from historical sources. (LJ 6/15/11)
1930s & 1940s
French, Paul. Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). 2012. 272p. photogs. bibliog. ISBN 9780143121008. $26.
In 1937, after the body of young Englishwoman Pamela Werner was found in the shadow of Peking’s Fox Tower, British detective Richard Dennis and Chinese detective Col. Han Shih-Ching set out to learn the truth, but in a tense city waiting to be overrun by the Japanese, answers were hard to find. (LJ 3/15/12)
Guinn, Jeff. Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. S. & S. 2009. 480p. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781416557067. $27; pap. ISBN 9781416557074. $16.99.
Guinn offers a clear-eyed and rigorously detailed portrait of the Parker/Barrow love affair, as well as of their criminal career, which did capture the public’s imagination during the Great Depression. (LJ 3/15/09)
King, David. Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris. Crown. 2011. 432p. ISBN 9780307452894. $26; pap. ISBN 9780307452900. $16.
King’s account of the murderous activities of a Parisian doctor reveals how Marcel Petiot preyed on the desperate in a lawless Paris occupied by the Nazis; readers interested in European wartime history will find intrigue among the grisly details.
Maza, Sarah. Violette Nozière: A Story of Murder in 1930s Paris. Univ. of California. 2011. 342p. illus. index. ISBN 9780520260702. $29.95.
Violette Nozière inexplicably laced her lower-middle-class parents’ medication with barbiturates. Maza uses court records, archival sources, and “her own knowledge of French culture to reconstruct both the details of the case and the social setting of the crime.” (LJ Xpress Reviews, 4/1/11)
Odell, Robin. The Mammoth Book of Bizarre Crimes: Incredible Real-Life Murders. Running Pr. 2010. 512p. index. bibliog. ISBN 9780762438440. pap. $14.95.
Odell’s collection of short pieces focuses on truly bizarre crimes, many of which are historical. The book is organized thematically, with sections on crimes involving animals, conspiracies, dismembered victims, etc.
True Crime: An American Anthology. Library of America, dist. by Penguin. 2008. 788p. ed. by Harold Schechter. index. ISBN 9781598530315. $40.
Schechter’s collection is comprised of primary accounts of crimes throughout American history, arranged chronologically. Featuring such notable authors as Benjamin Franklin and Ambrose Bierce, it should appeal to history buffs. Schechter is a popular true crime author, whose notable output includes Killer Colt, the Devil’s Gentleman and Depraved (about Ed Gein) (LJ 9/15/08). Another anthology, Psycho USA: Famous Killers You Never Heard Of (Ballantine. 2012. 416p. ISBN 9780345524478. $20), published in August, is Schechter’s latest release but was unavailable for this article.
America’s 60 Greatest Unsolved Mysteries & Crimes 2 discs. color. 420 min. Mill Creek Entertainment, www.millcreekent.com. 2010. DVD UPC 683904509741. $9.98.
Covers 60 of America’s most memorable unsolved crimes, including the Lindbergh kidnapping, the murders of Lizzie Borden’s parents, the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, and many more.
Forensic Files: Historic Cases. 2 discs. color. 360 min. Image Entertainment, www.watchimage.com. 2009. DVD UPC 011891515566. $16.96.
Highlights how forensic science was used in many historical investigations.
Edgar Awards, Best Fact Crime
Presented by the Mystery Writers of America.
The Great Nonfiction Read-Alike: Historical True Crime
Librarian Alene Moroni (King Cty. Lib. Syst., WA) provides a list of titles designed to appeal to fans of Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
True Crime Book Reviews
Although most of the books reviewed here focus on modern true crime, this is an invaluable resource for true crime stories, authors, and publishers.
Sarah Statz Cords has worked as an academic and public librarian and is currently an associate editor with the Reader’s Advisory Online blog. She is the author of the reading guides The Real Story, The Inside Scoop, and Now Read This III (with Nancy Pearl), as well as the nonfiction lit blog Citizen Reader. She will now be taking a short break from reading true crime, so she can stop regarding everyone around here with suspicion