You could say Serial started it all. The podcast was downloaded over a quarter of a billion times, and the question of whether or not Adnan Syed killed schoolmate Hae Min Lee in 1999 became the weekly topic of water cooler conversation. Suddenly, discussing murder and cell tower evidence became commonplace. And so for some, the true crime wave was born.
Now, there are countless podcasts dedicated to the topic of true crime, and there’s one for everyone. My personal favorite? My Favorite Murder, a comedy / true crime podcast hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. Two friends, three cats and 200+ episodes dedicated to hometown murders and the hosts’ comedic (but always respectful) takes on their “favorite” murders of the week. No matter what you’re looking for, whether that’s cults, small town stories or a deep dive into a crime spree involving stolen Venus Flytraps, it’s guaranteed there’s a crime podcast that will strike your fancy. (Need more recommendations? Check out this excellent Vulture round up written by my friend Hillary Nelson—there are 52 options to choose from.)
But for some of us murderinos, an interest in crime has been there all along. We just couldn’t really talk about it without people backing away from us slowly at parties. Mine began with checking out the entire Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson collected works from the middle school library, before graduating to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, mine and many people’s first foray into the true crime genre.
Read on for three can’t-miss true crime books to read (with the lights on).
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
This chilling account of the East Area Rapist / Original Night Stalker (EAR / ONS) is made all the more creepy by the fact that his 1974-1986 crimes (13+ murders, 50+ rapes and 120+ burglaries) went unsolved in California for over 40 years.
The author, Michelle McNamara, was the one who dubbed the perpetrator the Golden State Killer—EAR / ONS is a clunky name, one that’s easily forgotten. In writing this account, she pored over investigative reports and became the greatest of armchair detectives, going so far as to buy cufflinks from a vintage store in Oregon that may have belonged to one of the victims and subsequently stolen by GSK (they weren’t). She managed to get closer to the usually close-mouthed detectives on the case and connect with GSK’s survivors in a way that no one else could, leading to an authentic, well-rounded account of his crimes. While sadly Michelle died suddenly before finishing the book, her unique voice is clear throughout, diving into theories and unflinching descriptions of the mounting fear and hysteria as GSK paralyzed entire communities.
Read because: The Golden State Killer was finally caught in April 2018—72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo was discovered thanks to familial DNA technology and is standing trial for 13 murders and 13 rape-related counts.
Buy it for yourself here.
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
Ted Bundy was an enigma, so much so that he wasn’t suspected by even those closest to him. Ann Rule is one of those who couldn’t believe that charming, handsome Bundy—her co-worker at a crisis hotline center who saw her safely to her car late at night—could be the serial killer behind at least 36 murders of young women.
Author Ann Rule can be considered the queen of true crime. She wrote 35 true crime books, starting with Bundy and eventually writing about the I-5 and Green River Killers. Her career began in law enforcement, further highlighting Bundy’s ability to hide in plain sight … how could anyone conceal their true nature from someone trained to catch criminals?
Read because: A film about Ted Bundy called Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is currently in post-production. Framed from the perspective of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (who also refused to believe the truth), Zac Efron will play Bundy and judging from his Instagram photos, it’s going to be a convincing portrayal (from looks at the very least). Make sure to read Rule’s account, which is considered one of the most definitive biographies of Bundy, before seeing the film.
Buy it for yourself here.
The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi
For those who obsess over the unsolved, this is the one for you. The Monster of Florence was a serial killer who terrorized lover’s lanes in small towns outside of Florence, Italy. Sources differ, but at least seven or eight double murders between 1968 and 1985 are attributed to “Il Mostro.” The murders launched the longest and most expensive investigation in Italian history, but the killer has never been caught.
Author Douglas Preston is best known for his fictional thrillers written in collaboration with Lincoln Child. In 2000, he moved to Italy with his family to write a fictional murder mystery but discovered he had moved into the very backyard of the notorious Monster of Florence. Preston abandons his novel idea and instead teams up with legendary crime reporter and Tuscan local Mario Spezi, who came up with the killer’s moniker and was dubbed “the Monstrologer” by fellow reporters thanks to his coverage of the killer.
What follows is an almost unbelievable account of the twists and turns in the case. Body parts are mailed, séances in graveyards are had and eventually the unimaginable happens—both Preston and Spezi unbelievably become the focus of investigation, with Spezi being accused of being the Monster himself.
Read because: After having just visited Italy, the book is a page-turning deep dive into Italian culture. It’s a mind-boggling read from the American perspective on the criminal justice system—our system may be nowhere near perfect but the peephole into an Italian investigation is astonishing in its differences.
Buy it for yourself here.