True Crime done right

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.

fact: books about crime must involve the colours red, white and black.

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 Simpsonwinning  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

Grey Matters – great books about the brain

It is a book of great merit that discusses the brain without causing an existential crisis in the reader (and one of even greater merit that turns such a crisis into something that’s at least entertaining).

Here are a few of the books I’ve read that managed to pull off that trick; covering topics like brains, psychology and mental health accessibly and candidly.

The Brain, the Story of You – Dave Eagleman

Who better to explain the brain that an enthusiastic American neuroscientist who’s a professor at Stanford? This book is the paper form of David Eaglemen’s TV series and offers a quick tour of the workings of your brain along with a few eye-opening case studies.

Do No Harm – Henry Marsh

Not one for reading on the commute, or when you’re feeling emotionally vulnerable, Do No Harm is written by neurosurgeon (and unfairly wonderful writer) Henry Marsh (nb his wife, Kate Fox, is an anthropologist and writer who wrote an opus about the weird habits of the English). Marsh’s book tells stories of saving lives, and not saving them – defeating tumours and being defeated. It’s honesty is painful, but welcome.

The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves- Stephen Grosz

Psychoanalysis (at least in the UK) is a bit of a dirty word, maybe all the Oedipal stuff scared us off, yet Grosz, a psychoanalyst, presents a series of cases in a style that is quite convincing.

The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

No list of brain books would be complete without an entry from late neurologist Oliver Sacks. His prolific and often pioneering work has covered topics like autism, hallucinations (auditory and visual), tourettes, dementia, colour blindess – the list only goes on. In this book, like many of his others, he discusses some of the extraordinary cases he’s handled in his noted compassionate style.

Falling into the fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis – Christine Montross

Falling into the fire is no exaggeration – in this book psychiatrist Christine Montross shares stories of those enduring the worst of mental health problems. Despite the often startling experiences of her patients Montross never veers towards sensationalism, she demonstrates deftly to the reader (in case there was any doubt) that her patients are not exhibits to be peered at, they’re unwell people to be helped.

The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson

Disclaimer: I will always recommend Jon Ronson with his nice voice and his eye for the absurd. In this book he investigates an area of mental health diagnosis as slippery as its subject: psychopathy.