It’s been a wild year for true crime, with many new books diving into a deep analysis of previously unsolved cases. These books follow a long tradition of authors donning their investigator outfits in search of a captivating story.
From a new book by Sarah Weinman, to a thorough exploration into one of the most heinous gangs in modern history, true crime as a genre is as strong as it has ever been, often filling out bestseller lists. The pivot to streaming, with the popularity of shows like Making a Murderer, has certainly helped too. In a sea of so many good books this year, these are among the best true crime stories of 2020.
The acclaimed author of The Real Lolita returns with an anthology of 13 true crime stories from authors like Alex Mar, Alice Bolin, and even Weinmen herself, highlighting the best of the genre. From an investigation of Gypsy Rose, the case involving a mother suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, to the mysterious tale of Slender Man, there’s a little bit of something for everyone.
Notes on a Silencing
Crawford writes from a dark place in this memoir about sexual assault. At the age of 15, while attending St. Paul’s School, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, she was assaulted by two older students. The students were unpunished and able to graduate, and the school itself, more concerned with its reputation, decided to brush the case aside. Crawford revisits the toxic culture of the school, right on down to the grief and trauma that resulted from the assault.
We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence
Cooper’s book is a mixture of true crime and memoir, about the unsolved murder of Jane Britton in her Harvard apartment in the winter of 1969. The details of the case are all very odd, with no sign or indication of mischief, the body being found on the bed with its head bashed in, a stone grave object left near the body, and rugs wrapped around the body. People mused about the possibilities, including Britton’s probable affair with a Harvard professor. Cooper unearths the theories and paints a picture of a countless rumors and deceit.
The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage
Now for something a little more political. Hvistendahl tells the true story of a two year breakneck case involving the U.S. government and Hailong Mo, a Chinese scientist accused of stealing trade secrets. Reading more like a novel, with its riveting twists and turns, the book depicts how the FBI handled the theft, going so far as bugging rental cars, flying surveillance planes, and doing anything to keep the trade secrets of corporate giants.
Magnetized: Conversations with a Serial Killer
Using an inventive narrative structure, Busqued investigates the killings of one Ricardo Mellongo, who murdered four taxi drivers back in 1982. Though the killer had been caught, the author pursues the little details of each murder and then goes one step further: he interviews Melogno. What results is a sad and compelling piece of true crime–the sort that causes you to look at the world differently when you’re done.
America’s First Female Serial Killer
With a title like that you might think you’ve already got the gist of this book’s hook. Well, you’d be wrong. McBrayer dramatizes the subject material, providing what is far more docudrama, than mere factual account. The subject in question is one Jane Toppan–a nurse, a monster, an angel of death. McBrayer investigates how Toppan became the monster she became, digging into her past to give readers a depiction of how most killers don’t begin as killers; they begin as normal people just like you.
Related: 15 Notorious Female Serial Killers
The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia
On the evening of June 25th, 1980, Vicki Durian and Nancy Santomero were killed while hitchhiking cross-country to the Rainbow Festival being held in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Dubbed “The Rainbow Murders,” the case remained open and unsolved for thirteen years. The title playfully alludes to the existence of a survivor, and moreover, the book itself becomes a survivor tale as much as it is true crime.
Broken Faith: Inside The Word Of Faith Fellowship, One Of America’s Most Dangerous Cults
You’ve got to love a good true crime tale involving a cult, and this book is a real standout. Weiss and Mohr have gone to great lengths to research the horrific world of the Word of Faith Fellowship cult. The cult itself, run by Jane Whaley, consisted of 22 men and women that were won over by Whaley’s charismatic preachings. Though they were promised deliverance, instead they got a nightmare of physical and sexual abuse. Told via the harrowing accounts of one family that was able to escape, Broken Faith is a masterpiece of true crime.
Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country
The year is 2009 and Lissa Yellow Bird gets out of prison only to discover the effects of the Bakken oil boom has had on both the land and her people. The tribal government has been won over by corporate buyouts and the community is facing an addiction crisis. When Bird discovers an oil worker named Kristopher “KC” Clarke has gone missing, and that few are looking for him, she decides to hunt for clues. Bird is an incredibly endearing subject and the story surrounding the oil boom is a troubling one.
MS-13: The Making of America’s Most Notorious Gang
From the face tattoos, to the recognizable hand gestures, the notorious gang known as MS-13 is common knowledge these days. And yet, few likely know of the story behind the gang’s uprising. Dudley has written an impeccably researched account of the gang’s culture and history, from the early days of Alex and his brother forming the “Mara Salvatrucha Stoners,” a network of heavy metal music fans, to the gang growing into the entity it is today, one of the biggest gangs active globally.
The Sorrows of Mexico
Perhaps one of the more underrated books on this list, The Sorrows of Mexico is a bold and hardcore piece of true crime that will punch you right in the gut. The authors don’t hold back as they report on the war on drugs and how Mexico has become, in the last decade, the heart of the drug trade. From accounts of teenage prostitution, to the disappearance of 43 students, The Sorrows of Mexico is so forceful with its writing that you’ll often worry if knowing this much about the drug cartels puts you in danger too.
The Case of the Vanishing Blonde
Bowden’s latest is a collection of six true crime stories from his work as a journalist, made to reflect on his many years reporting on crime. From a fraternity gang rape of a drugged girl, to unsolvable cold case crimes and the work of a private detective named Ken Brennan, the book is a well-rounded feature that dazzles as much as it terrifies. Read it for the memorable detective, Brennan, and his interesting investigative process.
The Devil's Harvest: A Ruthless Killer, a Terrorized Community, and the Search for Justice in California's Central Valley
The true story of Jose Martinez, a drug cartel hitman responsible for countless murders in California’s Central Valley, is about as harrowing as true crime gets. Martinez prioritized killing immigrants, which was reportedly one of the reasons why it took 35 years for him to get caught. Nobody was looking for the people whose lives he took. Jessica Garrison expertly documents this man’s terrifying list of crimes, while also examining how often the criminal justice system fails people.
The Cold Vanish
Billman’s book is about missing persons cases and the ricochet effect that occurs throughout all major institutions of family, government, and community. Focusing on the disappearance of Jacob Gray in Olympic National Park, the book investigates the different tools available to authorities—be it search and rescue teams, databases, etc.—to help find those that go missing. However, what Billman reveals is just how easy it is for someone to go missing… and never be found again. If you like your true crime more in the vein of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild rather than Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, this is the book for you.
American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Bird of American CSI
What better book to read than the one that tells the story of how criminal investigation in America got its start? Dawson’s account of Edward Oscar Heinrich, also known as the “American Sherlock Holmes,” acts as the impetus for what would become CSI and an entire field of science and criminal justice. Heinrich was the first to take forensic science seriously, at a time when his methods might have looked more like the rituals and spells found in witchcraft. The book is incredibly entertaining and a must-read slice of history for any fan of true crime.