When you open a true crime book, you expect to be taken into some of the most salacious, scandalous, depraved, or terrifying real-life crimes. Dedicated journalists and authors relentlessly pursue lesser-known cases and, as a result of their investigations, completely transform how we view everything about it—and maybe even our behavior around our true crime consumption.
But even in high-profile cases, authors or journalists can bring new facts to light and alter public opinion—sometimes even changing the direction of the investigation itself. These revolutionary books are so impactful they alter the future of the genre in profound ways. We’ve gathered twelve true crime books so powerful, they changed the trajectory of the genre forever.
In Cold Blood
When Truman Capote set out to document the harrowing murder of the Clutter family, true crime as a genre didn’t exist. The crime took place on a cold November night in 1959 in Holcomb, Kansas. Capote reconstructs the murders, investigation, trial, and execution of the two men found guilty of the crimes, but it’s the incredibly deft way he handles the material that makes this one of the best true crime novels ever written. The killers are portrayed as vicious and terrifying, yet it’s impossible to deny their flawed humanity. In Cold Blood is a powerful narrative that continues to mesmerize readers to this day.
As the prosecuting attorney in the trial against Charles Manson, Vincent Bugliosi had a unique perspective into the case. The Manson murders are horrifying on their own, but Manson’s ability to exert control and influence over the young women involved is one of the many unanswered questions that still haunt the case. Bugliosi examines the details of this disturbing crime in one of the most popular true crime books ever written.
I'll Be Gone in the Dark
For ten years, the Golden State Killer committed over fifty sexual assaults and ten gruesome murders across the state of California. And then he vanished. Thirty years later, Michelle McNamara began her relentless search for the killer. Through extensive details taken from police reports, online communities, and interviews with the victims themselves, McNamara sought out technology and online resources to examine the crimes in an entirely new way. Through a balance of the past and her investigation, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a stunning journey into true crime journalism, but what makes this novel remarkable is how it sparked renewed interest in the cases and eventually led to the identification and capture of the killer.
The Stranger Beside Me
Ted Bundy was one of the most prolific serial killers in America. And Ann Rule knew him. This chilling narrative dismantles the idea that we would know a monster if we sat next to one. That we could recognize evil, especially if he sat next to us every day. But as Rule shows us, a killer can be a sensitive crisis hotline worker. Detailing her friendship and revealing personal correspondence with Bundy until his execution, The Stranger Beside Me is an intimate look at the man who brutally murdered dozens of young women.
On April 20, 1999, two students walked into their High School and devastated the country. In the aftermath, we heard a lot about Goths, jocks, and something called The Trench Coat Mafia. But what really happened that day? Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters at the shooting, and what he saw began a ten year investigation into unraveling the psychology of Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and the survivors of that tragic day.
Related: 8 Most Disturbing True Crime Books
The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson
When former NFL star O.J. Simpson was accused of murder, the nation was shocked. But when he got into the back of a white Ford Bronco and led the police on a two-hour, low-speed chase through Southern California, the world was transfixed. The trial of O.J. Simpson became known as the trial of the century, capturing a record 150 million viewers when the verdict was announced. But what we didn’t see were the riveting behind-the-scenes interactions that influenced and shaped the shocking outcome. The Run of His Life is one of the most complete accounts of the murders, the chase, the trial—and the verdict that shook the country.
Party Monster: A Fabulous but True Tale of Murder in Clubland
Originally published as Disco Bloodbath, this book exploded with controversy when it first came out. Told at a breakneck narrative pace in a style that feels like you’re being told the story in the middle of a bass-thumping club, it’s an unabashed look at the hedonistic and drug-fueled lifestyle of New York City Club Kids in the 1990’s. St. James was one of these Club Kids, but Party Monster focuses on how his friend and confident Michael Alig murdered and dismembered his drug dealer, Angel. It’s a wild and outrageous story that offers a rare glimpse into an underground world very few were ever exposed to.
All the President’s Men
There aren’t many books that can claim they changed America, but All the President’s Men is one of them. For two years, the Watergate scandal created a constitutional crisis that rocked the foundation of American law and politics. Published two months before President Nixon resigned, Bernstein and Woodward systematically dismantle the lies behind Watergate until they reveal the shocking truth behind the criminal conspiracy. The book brought down a President, uncovered the biggest scandal in politics, and shaped a generation of journalists.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement
On October 5, 2017, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published a story in The New York Times that shocked the world. It wasn’t the allegations inside the article—unfortunately, stories of powerful men abusing women were all too common. But within days of the article being published, women began sharing their own stories of harassment and abuse using the hashtag #metoo. She Said captures their daunting experience investigating powerful men while having seemingly never-ending obstacles thrown in their path. It’s a story of resilience—both theirs and the brave women who came forward—and ultimately, helped spark a movement that continues to demand justice and equality for women all over the world.
Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators
At the same time that She Said was released, Ronan Farrow released a book covering similar content. But where Kantor and Twohey focus on the investigation of Harvey Weinstein, Farrow focuses on the tactics Weinstein and other powerful Hollywood men used to threaten, discredit, and intimidate anyone attempting to uncover the truth. Catch and Kill exposes the ruthless strategies these men employed to keep their victims silent—and ensure their names stayed out of damaging headlines. It’s a shocking account of how widespread these blatant abuses of power went and highlights how far these men were willing to go to stay in their positions.
Related: 11 Best True Crime Books of 2019
Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit
Every true crime buff has heard about the infamous Behavioral Analysis Unit. But not many people know the man who brought the unit to life. Now retired, John Douglas takes readers into how criminal profiling became one of the most effective tools for catching some of the most violent and elusive criminals. Through revealing and disturbing case histories, Douglas reveals what it was like to mentally submerge himself in the minds of psychopaths. Not only did Douglas shape how civilians see and understand true crime, but he was also the inspiration for Silence of the Lambs’ Special Agent Jack Crawford.
Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide
True crime is more popular than ever, and podcasts are largely responsible for the increase in popularity. One of the most popular podcasts covering true crime is My Favorite Murder, in which hosts Kilgariff and Hardstark remind their audiences—their “Murderinos”—to “stay sexy and don’t get murdered.” Now they go behind the scenes, revealing never-before-heard stories about their lives—and the true crime stories that never made it onto the show. While it’s light on the true crime elements, the book explores the societal and cultural issues that can not only create victims but keep them silent. Through their humorous, no-nonsense approach, they discuss how to advocate for yourself and teach that being safe is more valuable than being nice.