The majority of true crime books are written on the back of hard-won research from the safety of libraries, cold calls, and pre-arranged meetings ... but a select group of others have earned their perspectives the hard way. From the son of a victim to the cop who tracked the Golden State Killer for decades, these are the people who are closer to the scene of crime than anyone ever wishes to be. Here are eight true crime books that come straight from folks who had a personal stake in the case.
The Stranger Beside Me
Clean-cut and suave, Ted Bundy was one of the most prolific serial killers in America’s past. On record, he killed, raped, and kidnapped over 40 women. (The true total is unknown, although Bundy reportedly said, “Add one digit [to 36], and you’ve got it.”) Anne Rule was Ted Bundy’s friend. She worked with him—ironically, at Seattle’s Suicide Hotline crisis center—decades before the police exposed the monster behind the façade. Her account is a chilling reflection on the man with whom she’d once exchanged Christmas cards and the definitive biography of one of America’s most notorious criminals.
The Death Instinct
In the U.S., John Dillinger is the most famous bank robber of all time, but in France, it’s Jacques Mesrine. France’s Public Enemy #1 in the 1960s and 70s, Mesrine was an infamous gangster who left behind a trail of bank robberies, murders, kidnappings, and prison escapes that spanned six countries and three continents. Before the bloody police shootout that took his life in 1979, Mesrine wrote his autobiography from his prison cell. He titled it L’Instinct de Mort (“Death Instinct”), giving readers rare inside access to the early, formative years of a violent criminal career.
No collection of books written by authors with the inside scoop would be complete without Helter Skelter, the bestselling true crime book of all time. In the 1970s, the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of Charles Manson and the Manson Family shocked the American public. Then the revelations about the crimes the Family committed in the fateful summer of 1969 turned up questions that all circled back to “Why?”. And who better to provide answers than Vincent Bugliosi, prosecutor during the trial and the author of this book? “Occasionally writers refer to a ‘motiveless crime.’ I’ve never encountered such an animal and I’m convinced that none such exists,” Bugliosi writes. “Every crime is committed for a reason. The problem, especially in this case, was finding it.”
19 years old and pregnant, Amber Hilberling claimed self-defense after she pushed Josh Hilberling through the window a 25th-floor apartment. But the State of Oklahoma charged Amber with murder. The sensational trial that occurred afterwards captured regional, national, and international media coverage. In 2016, J.R. Elias, one of Amber’s attorneys, independently published Push, telling a true crime account of Amber’s story.
Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell
In 1968, the day before her 11th birthday, Mary Bell strangled two boys, aged three and four years old. The resulting investigation and trial made Mary Bell a household name in England. In a controversial move, Sereny gained exclusive access to Bell while she was still serving a 12-year prison sentence. The resulting collaboration with Bell induced public outcry but also sought to answer a question no one quite understood: what could drive a child to murder other children?
The Last Victim
Jason Moss was an 18-year old freshman when a college thesis inspired him to reach out to criminals in prison. He eventually acquired a roster of pen pals made up of the world’s most dangerous serial killers: John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, and Jeffrey Dahmer among them. He especially developed a close relationship with Gacy, going so far as to see him in prison. But the visit flipped the tables on Moss, as Moss realized that he was to be left in a room with a handcuffed serial killer, no security cameras . . . and no security guards. The experience was the genesis for this book, which turns out to be a chilling inside peek at the mind of the serial killer — and what happens when you become friends with one.
The East Area Rapist. The Original Night Stalker. The Golden State Killer. Three monikers used to identify one man: a serial rapist turned-serial-killer, who terrorized California in the 1980s. His 10-year spree encompassed 50 rapes and at least 12 murders. Yet the EAR was never caught. In Sudden Terror, one of the detectives who worked on the investigation recounts everything from the initial rapes in Sacramento to the EAR’s eventual transformation into the Golden State Killer. Fast-paced and meticulously detailed, the book is written with all the desperate insight that one can provide for a case that can not yet be closed.
Son of a Gun
In September 2001, only a couple days after the Twin Towers fell, Debbie St. Germain was found in a dusty trailer, dead from eight gunshot wounds. A few months later, an ex-cop named Ray Hudson committed suicide. What was the connection between these two deaths? Left behind to answer the question in the midst of the tragedy was 20-year old Justin St. Germain, Debbie’s son. Investigating the case, the author weaves memoir and true crime expertly while piecing together the clues that point towards Debbie St. Germain being shot eight times in Tombstone, Arizona.
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