A breezy beach and an umbrella; crashing waves and a good thriller — they are classic pairings, and the perfect way to spend a few lazy vacation days. As much as we love a bit of fictional suspense, true life, and true crime in particular, can often be stranger than fiction. History, recent and otherwise, is full of salacious murders, cold-hearted killers, and nerve-rattling investigations. So, next time you find yourself on the beach and in need of a literary distraction to while away those sunny hours, check out these nonfiction page-turners.
The Chicago World’s Fair, one of the most accomplished and influential architects of the latter 19th Century, and one of U.S. history’s most notorious serial killers — these are the extraordinary elements of Erik Larson’s nonfiction thriller, The Devil in the White City. Beginning in 1890, architect Daniel Hudson Burnham set about the task of transforming Jackson Park for the 1893 World’s Fair. Just west of the Fair’s location, Dr. H.H. Holmes began converting an abandoned lot into what he would bill the “World’s Fair Hotel” but would come to be known as the infamous “Murder Castle” — a labyrinthine house of literal horrors where Holmes tortured and killed as many as two dozen or more victims.
While the true crime genre existed before In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s 1965 bestseller laid the narrative groundwork for the modern true crime novel. In Cold Blood is Capote’s in-depth examination of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. However, the book’s most interesting aspect is Capote’s clear fascination with and disturbing portrait of the killers themselves. With his inimitable literary flair, Capote constructed an atmospheric, meticulously researched, and darkly captivating narrative that set the tone for virtually all of the true crime novels that followed in its considerable wake.
You really can’t go wrong with any of Ann Rule’s books. The queen of true crime is best known for her stunning debut, The Stranger Beside Me, which recounts her friendship with Ted Bundy. The I-5 Killer is her investigation of Randall Woodfield, who stalked the Interstate 5 corridor from California to Washington State, raping and murdering multiple victims. While he was convicted of only one murder, he is suspected in an as many as forty-four deaths.
Pizza Bomber recounts one of the most bizarre and complex crimes in modern history. Brian Wells was a pizza delivery man forced to rob a bank with a bomb strapped around his neck. After delivering the money to his captors, Wells was given clues to disarm the bomb. However, he was captured by police before finding the clues. The bomb detonated while Wells was custody, killing him. In a truly bizarre twist, investigators eventually found that Wells may not have actually be a victim, but rather an active conspirator in the crime.
The Black Dahlia murder remains one of the most infamous unsolved murders of the twentieth century. The grisly murder of Elizabeth Short — whose body, mutilated and severed at the waist, was found in a Los Angeles park — gripped the public’s imagination in 1947 and has continued to do so in the decades since. Of all the books, articles, documentaries, and films on the Black Dahlia case, Black Dahlia, Red Rose is largely considered the standard.
The Great Smog of London in 1952 is one of the most extraordinary and deadly environmental disasters of the twentieth century. A perfect nexus of conditions — cold weather, virtually no wind, and the ubiquity of coal-fired hearths — blanketed the city in a dense haze of smog that ground the city to a halt and led to 12,000 deaths. In the midst of this week-long nightmare, a serial killer stalked the smog-covered streets, murdering at least six women. Death in the Air is a true crime thriller too strange for fiction.
When pieces of a body began appearing all over New York in 1897 — in a pond on Long Island, a torso on the Lower East side of Manhattan, severed limbs in Harlem — police were baffled and the public was horrified. The murder captured public imagination and spurred a tabloid war that, in many ways, changed the face of journalism in America. The Murder of the Century is a larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction tale of murder, corruption, and the advent of sensationalist tabloid reporting.
Nine-year-old Marcia Trimble delivered Girl Scout Cookies in Nashville, Tennessee on a February afternoon in 1975. She never returned home. When her body was discovered thirty-three days later, her family expected the case to come to a swift close. It would be more than thirty years before Marcia’s killer was finally brought to justice. A Season of Darkness is the fascinating examination of that long and winding road.
Daniel Paquette was shot and killed in 1985 in a small New Hampshire town. His murder went unsolved for twenty years until Eric Windhurst, a teenager in 1985 and a friend of Paquette’s daughter, pled guilty to the murder. Our Little Secret is a page-turning account of small-town secrets, teenaged passion, violence, and abuse.
Following his arrest in 2003, registered nurse Charlie Cullen was implicated in the deaths of as many as three-hundred patients. A trail of death followed Cullen over sixteen years and nine hospitals from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Based on a decade of research, Charles Graeber took a deep dive into the disturbing story of Charlie Cullen in this unnerving, edge-of-your-seat, true-life thriller.