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Criminal Reading: A Look at True Crime

The old adage that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ is rarely more accurate than in the case of crime stories. True crime stories create an unsettling but captivating space where there are no safety rails of fiction to hide behind. The real life implications of these crimes leave it hard to turn away, testified by the inescapable public fascination with documentaries such as Making a Murderer, The Jinx and the podcast Serial. Whether the focus is on the crimes and the criminals or the investigation and justice system, true crime stories illuminate the far reaches of human experience. They fill us with fear and adrenaline, but open up a space for compassion and understanding in the face of tragedy and atrocities. Here is a selection of five books of real world crimes which will captivate and terrify you in equal measure.

    The Stranger Beside Me

    A true classic in true crime, Ann Rule’s book The Stranger Beside Me is a captivating look at one of history’s most notorious serial killers, Ted Bundy. It remains one of the seminal works on true crime, largely because of the author’s personal connections and firsthand experience with the killer. Rule was commissioned to write this book while the murders were as yet unsolved, but in a nauseating turn of events she finds herself following the investigation and indictment of her friend and suicide hotline colleague, Bundy. A naturally charming and attractive man, yet shortly before his execution in 1989 Bundy would confess to murdering at least 35 women. Rule explores the mind and methods of a man she had once counted as a friend. The resulting book is one which is almost too close for comfort. Yet such closeness to the criminal is rare, making this a compulsive read as it relates Bundy’s many facets, moving from friendly co-worker to sociopath and sadist.


    The mass suicide of the 913 inhabitants of Jonestown, remains one of the greatest losses of American civilian life from a single incident. This chilling event, shows the devastation one man can reek on a group of people desperate for acceptance. Jim Jones rose to power and political esteem in the 70s, gathering followers and brainwashing them, ultimately leading them to establish a commune in Guyana. It was here that the ‘revolutionary suicide’ was carried out. Reiterman gives a profound account of the emotional and psychological terror Jones instilled. Reiterman is also able to give a firsthand account of the community, as he was a part of a journalist contingent sent to investigate the cult. The investigation ended in a shootout, killing five people including Congressman Leo Ryan, and wounding Reiterman himself. The aftermath of this shootout was Jones’ instigation of his community’s suicide. Reiterman’s close contact with the event coupled with his incisive analysis of Jones’ character makes for a haunting yet fascinating read.

    People Who Eat Darkness

    People Who Eat Darkness tells a story which at first glance sounds all too familiar: an English girl working as a hostess in Japan goes missing and is later found dead. Yet Parry’s book is not about telling the simple story. He delves into the true complexities of circumstances and characters, and shows nothing about this case to be straightforward. Whether it’s the hazy understanding, in Western eyes, of the job of hostess in Japan, or even the conflicting behaviour of the father who championed his daughter’s investigation, Parry leaves nothing at face value. Most importantly he delves into Japanese law enforcement and criminal justice system, of which he delivers a scorching indictment. From the shambolic police investigation, which overlooked key witnesses, to the trial which buckled under the importance placed on getting a confession from the resolutely silent perpetrator, Parry illustrates a society unused to, and incapable of handling these kinds of crimes. People Who Eat Darkness is exemplary in addressing the many personal and societal complexities that go into the causes and the investigations of crimes.

    Death of Innocence

    Following the massive popularity of Making a Murderer and Serial, outrage and conjecture regarding the cases became something of a national pastime. Yet these galvanizing cases are hardly the first to capture public imagination. One of the first and most profound examples of this was the murder of Emmett Till and the subsequent trial and acquittal of the perpetrators. Brutally murdered for whistling in the vicinity of a white woman, Emmett Till’s death was a catalyst for the civil rights movement. In Death of Innocence Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley recounts the story of her son’s life and death, as well as her own life of activism following Till’s murder. The account is painful but is imbued with Till-Mobley’s strength and compassion. She demonstrates her courage from the moment of her son’s murder: insisting on an open casket funeral, so that all could see his body disfigured from the beating he received from his killers. Her determination to ensure that the eyes of the country should not turn away from what had happened to her son had ripple effects across history. Death of Innocence is a fascinating story of the galvanizing effect a brutal and tragic crime can have on a person’s life and the impact it can have on the history of a nation.

    Picking Cotton

    Horrifying and captivating in equal measure, stories of wrongful convictions have been long been a source of fascination. Between miscarriages of justice and cruel coincidences audiences are transfixed by the sequence of events leading to these tragic mistakes. Picking Cotton is a particularly profound example of this. It tells the story of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino who was raped at knifepoint by an intruder in her apartment. She then mistakenly identified Ronald Cotton as her attack. Cotton spent the next eleven years in prison until he was allowed to take the DNA test which exonerated him. Then, in a most surprising turn of events Thompson and Cotton met, became friends, and wrote this book together. Alternating between their two experiences, they recount their harrowing journeys but ultimately their path towards forgiveness and reconciliation. A daunting look at memory, judgement, and the Criminal Justice System, but also a fascinating glimpse into the reaches of grace and compassion.

    Posts on this profile were created by members of the Bookwitty team. Here, we discuss books, authors, publishers and other literary-related topics. You’ll find our writers based between our ... Show More


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