The ‘true crime’ genre comes with a lot of baggage – lurid covers, dehumanised killers and pulpy writing all too often neglect reality. But done right true crime books can offer insight into the worst humanity has to offer (and satisfy our unshakeable morbid interests). Here’s three books which shed the seediness of the genre.
The Run of his Life: The People vs OJ Simpson – Jeffrey Toobin
In 1994 Nicole Simpson, wife of OJ Simpson, American football icon, was murdered along with visitor to Nicole’s house, Ron Goldman. All the evidence suggested they were killed by OJ but the country was divided on his innocence – and remains so. In fact fascination with OJ has crested again recently with the TV adaption of Toobin’s book, The Run of his Life: The People vs OJ Simpson, winning 9 Emmys and the 8 hour documentary ‘OJ Made in America’ winning an Oscar. It seems this thorn in the American psyche is no closer to working its way out. Toobin’s book picks apart and holds up to the light not just the murder but the various factors that escalated it into something much much bigger
Read for: a better understanding of how a murder blew up into a major cultural event
Helter Skelter – Vincent Bugliosi
Vincent Bugliosi took on a serious challenge when he chose to write a book about Charles Manson – a man who manages to wear both the mantles of murderer and icon. However Bugliosi’s precise writing and prosecutor’s eye for detail makes quick work of untangling Charles Manson, the cult leader responsible for committing crimes using his ‘family’.
Read for: a better understanding of how charismatic figures can do extraordinary damage
Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son – Gordon Burn
Peter Sutcliffe (also known as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’) murdered 13 women around Leeds and Bradford. Burn’s book puts Sutcliffe under the microscope, going deep into his biography and the history and culture of the area he grew up in. Burn lays out the facts starkly, swapping from social observation to murder minutiae with barely a stop for breath. He offers no simple explanation (such a thing doesn’t exist), just a careful excavation of a time, a place and a man using selections from wide-ranging interviews.
Read for: a better understanding of how motives can be incredibly complex
Other true crime books on my reading list (recommendations welcome):
In Cold Blood (Truman Capote) – often dubbed the ‘original’ true crime book
Columbine (Dave Cullen) – well thought of for dispelling many of the myths that sprung up around the Columbine school shooting