Image via WikipediaTrue crime, at its best, is a fascinating combination of historical investigation dominated by primary source evidence often with strong aspects of prominent scientific psychological theory and an understanding of cultural dimensions. Their authors range from thorough historians who have enough discipline to not be led away by confirmation bias or too many preconceived ideas and prejudicesto objective interviewers who gain a unique insight into their subject's personality. Unfortunately the majority of books that go under title "true crime" are actually close cousins of the ghost story or urban legend. They range from tabloid style reports on cases to outright fabrications to ghost-written romantacized autobiographies of criminals trying to capitalize on their parasitic and rather sad lives. However, we shouldn't be too hard on all these modern day evolutions of penny dreadful compilations. Often they are the tantilizing baits that draw us in originally.
Below is a list of 10 particularly significant books that come under this genre and, for the most part, will steer you in the right direction to get the most out of this landmine filled area of non-fiction reading...
"The Newgate Calendar"
By various authors
Truman Capote's book, "In Cold Blood" is often considered to be the seminal work in the true crime genre. To its enduring literary credit I must humbly disagree. Capote's book is of a far higher calibre of writing and style than most that followed. Few books that detail and examine the cases of criminals - from biographies to anthologies - resemble Capote's wonderful and moving insight into how murder affects society and individuals. The Newgate Calendar, a late 18th century collection of accounts about famous criminals, is the best example of the true crime prototype. After reading it, you need not really bother yourself with the majority of the other sensationalist dross that is churned out onto the shelves of newsagents or airports. Here you will find the source for the majority of myths and legends surrounding notorious criminals. For example, this is very possibly the first source for the fictitious 16th century cave-dwelling Scottish cannibal, Sawney Bean and his supposed 48 strong clan of children and grandchildren that were bred through incest. This story has found its way into numerous pulp non-fiction anthologies and reported as fact.
The Newgate Calendar is very much a product of its times. It originally appeared as a monthly bulletin, reporting the various public executions of the time. The bulletins were eventually collected and bound as a five volume book in 1774. Various improved editions then appeared until 1826's "New Newgate Calander". This is the edition you will probably find today. The grisly melodrama and high moralizing will be very familiar with readers of pulp non-fiction true crime books like "The World's Most Evil Men". However, what might surprise some new to this work is that the work was generally used by parents to tutor their children in the perils of living a sinful life. After all, it was originally written at a time when good moral education for children included regular visits to the public executions that ended many of the lives of real-life individuals that are found among the various sensational bulletins.
"The Jack the Ripper A-Z"
By Paul Begg, Keith Skinner and Martin Fido
If you have ever been intrigued by the Whitechapel murders of 1888 then this really should be your first source for information. Forget your Patricia Cornwells, Stephen Knights and others who have made outrageously silly claims about the identity and motives of Britain's most famous serial murderer, this book will objectively lead you through all the world of Ripperology. It is written by three of the most credible criminologists (Paul Begg, Keith Skinner and Martin Fido) who have written about the subject - writers whose conclusions may differ but all respect a sober and methodical approach to research. Skinner and Fido are interesting because they both have their favourite suspects, but are both respectful historians who are clearly very observant of the facts. Fido is a personal favourite of mine for his work outside of Jack the Ripper and his audio books are essential entertainment for all crime buffs. Skinner wrote "The Legacy of Jack the Ripper", a good book on the case even if you don't agree with the final conclusion - his suspect still remains one of the most popular among serious ripperologists. Begg must have acted as a great mediator. He doesn't have a favourite suspect and is just a wealth of information.
By Vincent Bugliosi
Bugliosi might get criticized by the likes of Martin Fido for having an ego that matched his subject matter, Charles Manson, (Fido notes that there nearly as many footnotes in the book on its author as there are on Manson) but this is still considered the seminal work of Manson's case. Much of what we know about the Manson "Family" and their crimes can be found in this book. Bugliosi led the prosecution against Manson, so you not only get a lengthy account of Manson's life and the life of his followers you also get in depth detail on the event surrounding the trial. However Bugliosi is not infallible in this book and his much later debunking of the JFK conspiracy theories in "Reclaiming History" is a superior work. Having vested interests in the case against the cult leader - who didn't actually kill anyone himself - he is guilty of a little odd speculation. And yet the details on the way a postmodern cult emerges and the control a charismatic individual can have over his followers is a powerful lesson.
By Robert Lacey
Robert Lacey pretty much shows you how an adult true crime biography should be written. His investigation is very thorough and objective, including interviews with the surviving members of his subject's closest family members. He cuts through all the popular myths that have built up around Meyer Lansky and the American mafia, and reveals the dreary reality of being a gangster. Everything is carefully referenced and it has virtually zero speculation. I am grateful for the exposure to the term "pulp non-fiction" and the stark revelation that - surprise, surprise - criminals lie!
By John Dickie
Without confusing issues relating to any other organized crime group - a very common error when it comes to true crime writing - John Dickie starts, continues and concludes with the Sicilian mafia. This is meticulously researched using only primary source material and runs its lengthy tale from the first documented founding of the Cosa Nostra in 1893 through to its growth in Manhattan. This book is a brilliant companion to Robert Lacey's "Little Man". It is lengthy yet never longwinded, chronicling the complex and tangled web of the Sicilian underworld whilst debunking the myths and confusions along the way. After so many decades of misinformation and disinformation coming from both criminals and law enforcement officials it is great to see someone who has the discipline and will to make a scholarly effort in investigating and telling the whole story. Dickie sticks hard to facts, reporting shocking documented stories and public information about this so-called secret society that has been around for over a century.
"The Monsters of Weimar:
Haarmann, the Story of a Werewolf & Kürten, the Vampire of Düsseldorf"
By Theodore Lessing & Karl Berg
This book contains two primary source accounts on the lives and crimes of Fritz Haarman and Peter Kurten. The accounts are significant landmarks in the history of serial killer investigation. They provided the first full first person accounts given by what Germans called "lust mörd". It seems incredible that these blood-thirsty and unconnected predators operated in the same country around the same era. As the police closed in one in Hanover, the other began his reign of terror in Dusseldorf. Haarman's story is told by a pacifist humanitarian, Theodore Lessing, who actually recommended that Haarman not be executed. Kürten's story is partly told by the "vampire" himself who gave the world its first in depth insight into the mind of this type of criminal. Kürten's account provided criminal psychologists with valuable insights into the typical patterns of a serial killer's progress through childhood and the rituals attached to his killings. Like many future killers, we learn that Kürten began his sadism through torturing and killing animals, that he regularly revisited the scenes of his crimes and that part of his build-up to killing involved committing smaller crimes like arson and assault. Haarman's interviewer reveals some striking similarities between the two and some differences that the Hanover murderer would share with other successive serial killers. This included peculiar attachment to his mother and an association with the local police force. The cases are then followed by reviews of two films that were inspired by the crimes of Haarman and Kürten, "The Tenderness of Wolves" and "M" respectively.
"Catch me a Killer"
By Micki Pistorius
This book details the six years that Micki Pistorius spent helping to capture 30 serial killers in South Africa. Her writing is both perceptive and articulate, as she relates her experiences in training over 100 police officers in psychological profiling and the way she interviewed the various killers. Like Christopher Berry-Dee and Helen Morrison, Pistorius actually got to know her various subjects intimately. Some even considered them their friend and even embraced at the end of the case. The crimes seem to have affected her very deeply - almost on a spiritual basis. However, she doesn't seem to fall into the sentimental trap many true crime writers do when they grow close to their subjects. Her views on why they kill and why therefore it is almost impossible to cure them are very convincing.
"The Wests" (or any audiobook written and read by Martin Fido)
Martin Fido is the true crime narrator that all others should be measured. He is quirky, opinionated, humorous and entertaining. However, he is also a strong stickler for the facts and promotes rational historical investigation. I credit him for first pointing me towards good historical research. I have put "The Wests" forward as it is currently his most publicized and accessible audiobook. It is also very representative of his style. Fido doesn't shirk on details and is thorough in his discussion the Wests' horrifying catalogue of torture and murder, but he is also careful to discuss the moral arguments that have come up regarding our morbid interest in true crime. In all his programmes he somehow writes and reads in the highly entertaining fashion of a great storyteller without ever sensationalizing his criminal subjects. Fido's works can be found in electronic form, on CD, on some of the Rippercast podcasts and he has written a wide variety of books. However, I would highly recommend getting hold of the programmes he has recorded on tape cassette format to really enjoy the richness of his work - that varies from his research on the Jack the Ripper murders to his excellent debunking of the JFK conspiracy theories.
By Tony Thorne
Despite attempts made by pseudohistorians there is a thick and clear line between historical revisionism and historical denialism. This is a wonderful example of the former. Like all good rational investigators Tony Thorne not only shows a thorough knowledge of researching his topic using primary source evidence, but demonstrates an understanding the culture, politics and customs of the time. This allows him to first use Ockham's Razor to strip away the myths that have built up around the infamous Countess Elizabeth Bathory who was found guilty of mass murder, most notably the nonsense about her bathing in blood. Tony Thorne brings into perspective the beliefs and religious/political divides at the time to better understand what really went on with the prosecution and conviction of one of history's most demonized aristocrats. He then looks at her legacy and enduring legend. If you are to read one book on the case, start with this one.
"Killing for Company"
By Brian Masters
Brian Masters' work on the life of British serial killer Dennis Nilsen is so thorough and insightful no one has stepped forward to improve on it. All subsequent work on Nilsen draws from this piece. "Killing for Company" stands apart from most criminal biographies for many reasons. Having the full cooperation of Nilsen, Masters was able to delve deep into his subject's psyche and extensively investigate the killer's background. The book is regularly applauded by the restraint Masters exercised. I single it out because of the way Masters detaches himself from his whole genre and doesn't seem to allow any preconceived theories or his own passions to steer him. In this respect he is the polar opposite of Micki Pistorius - which is no critique on her very personal way of unpacking the conundrum of a serial killer's motives and compulsions. In fact, if you are a regular reader of criminology you might find it quite infuriating how Masters refuses to acknowledge or refer to other criminal case studies in an effort to find familiar serial killer childhood development patterns. Apart from a weird yet non-abusive personal attachment to his grandfather, Nilsen - much like his contemporary Peter "The Yorkshire Ripper" Sutcliffe - had a relatively normal upbringing. At the book's conclusion Masters puts forward a very compelling and commonsensical argument that killers like Nilsen should first be tested for their sanity before they are tried for their crimes.
Having completed the list I realized that I had missed out a few other ones that are arguably better. Brian Bailey's "Burke and Hare: The Year of the Ghouls", for example, is the best book on the 19th century murdering duo who used the guise of bodysnatching to hide their far more infamous profession. Consider it a bonus eleventh title!
Don't forget to check out Jamie Clubb's main blog www.jamieclubb.blogspot.com