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Old 09-07-2010, 05:45 PM
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Recommend true crime narrative non-fiction books, please?


Examples of the kind of stuff I'm looking for: In Cold Blood and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I know it sounds like they don't have much in common, but they're both really well written, they've both got the narrative arc of a novel rather than of a non-fiction book, they both bring the characters to life with as much detail and vividness and emotional depth as possible, and they both root the stories very deeply in social context, so you get a real insight into the time and place and how the crime and the investigation were shaped by that time and place.

Can anyone recommend anything else that fits the bill?

While I'm being demanding:

I prefer stuff set in the past (distant or recent - anything up to about WWII) - not sure why - but if there's something good that's set more recently, I won't kick it out of bed for eating crisps.

I can't get into books involving political intrigue or espionage, mainly because the scale gets too large, the politics start to overwhelm the individuals, and then I instantly switch off. I might be able to get into a political book if character's still centre stage, but I'm way more into small-scale stuff.

Thank you in advance
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Old 09-07-2010, 05:56 PM
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One I liked was The Napoleon of Crime. Who could not love the bio of the guy who inspired Professor Moriarty of Sherlock Holmes fame?

http://www.amazon.com/Napoleon-Crime.../dp/0385319932

Another goodie I think was The Devil in the White City, about an criminal as gruesome and evil as the previous one was genteel: http://www.amazon.com/Devil-White-Ci...3900162&sr=1-1
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Old 09-07-2010, 06:35 PM
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The two that immediately came to mind are both more recent than your preferred time period, but excellent examples of what you're looking for:

Helter Skelter, about the 1969 Manson Family murders

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, based on events in Savannah, Georgia in the 1980's

Both of these books are frequently compared to In Cold Blood in their style and subject matter.
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Old 09-07-2010, 06:38 PM
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Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt is a good read (though I have heard that the author stretched the definition of "nonfiction" a good bit). It is about a murder in Savannah, Georgia in the 80's, so it's more recent than WWII, but it has the small scale and the vivid characterization of the people involved that you are looking for.


ETA: Beat to the punch!

Last edited by Tangent; 09-07-2010 at 06:39 PM.
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Old 09-07-2010, 06:53 PM
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Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James Swanson. I thought this was excellent, it felt suspenseful when I was reading it, although kind of obviously I knew how it was going to turn out.

Two that I thought were okay, not the absolute best but decent enough to get from the library were:

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. Not so much one crime, but each chapter devoted to a different poisoning incident, most of them intentional.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu. I will caution you that about half of it is a straight bio of Evelyn Nesbit, the crime part is mostly in the second half. It's maybe a little sensational, but I did like how the author painted a vivid and believable picture of the social world in which they lived.
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Old 09-08-2010, 07:41 AM
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Oh, lovely!! Thank you all so much - all of those sound great (although I might have to skip Helter Skelter because I have a feeling it might give me nightmares). I'm spoilt for choice now.

While I'm picking your brains, does anyone know a really good book in this vein about Jack the Ripper? I read the gobsmackingly bad Patricia Cornwell one (on one page she's pointing out that X is a possibility because there's no evidence that it didn't happen, and by the next page she's using X as a proven fact and the basis for a whole theory...) and I could do with an antidote.
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Old 09-08-2010, 08:37 AM
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I saw the title of this thread and immediately thought of In Cold Blood and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. So em I'll be seeing what suggestions you get so that I can check them out too.

I've heard great things about Devil in the White City but its proving very difficult to find where I live.
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Old 08-03-2011, 04:08 AM
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Jack McGurn


Hi
I'm new on this forum, but I saw your post and thought I'd reply.
It's maybe not the subject matter you were asking for, but given that you mention [I]In Cold Blood[I] I would recommend The True and Complete Story of 'Machine Gun' Jack McGurn by Amanda J. Parr. It is written in a kind of non-fiction novel style, like In Cold Blood and for me, the characters are wonderfully brought to life. It is about Jack McGurn, a hitman and bodyguard for Al Capone. Even if prohibition era stuff isn't your thing (it wasn't really mine) I would give it a go. It's a thrilling read.
Another little tip, if you get it from http://www.jackmcgurn.com you can buy a copy signed to you by the author.
As for a good book on Jack the Ripper (and by the way I agree wholeheartedly about Patricia Cornwell) I would recommend The Secret of Prisoner 1167: Was This Man Jack the Ripper? by James Tully.
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Old 08-03-2011, 07:42 AM
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Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry is excellent--a fairly recent book about the murderesses in 1920s Chicago who inspired the play (and movie, and then musical) Chicago.
  #10  
Old 08-03-2011, 08:26 AM
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Ann Rule's The Stranger Beisde Me. She actually knew Ted Bundy while he was committing his ghastly murders, and got the contract to write the book before he was even a suspect.
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Old 08-03-2011, 08:35 AM
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POPULAR CRIME by Bill James (yes, the baseball writer) is not only a terrific study of crime over the past few hundred years but is studded with evaluations and recommendations of exactly what you want--he tells you, for example, exactly what Ann Rule's strong points as a reader are and her weak points. He does this for dozens of true-crime books. Can't recommend it strongly enough.
  #12  
Old 08-03-2011, 08:39 AM
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Another goodie I think was The Devil in the White City, about an criminal as gruesome and evil as the previous one was genteel: http://www.amazon.com/Devil-White-Ci...3900162&sr=1-1
Seconded. I'm currently reading Larson's Thunderstruck which is about the Crippen murder as well as Marconi's invention of practical wireless communication.
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Old 08-03-2011, 08:42 AM
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as a writer, not as a reader
  #14  
Old 08-03-2011, 09:00 AM
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The best book I have ever read on the Crippen case is Supper with the Crippens: A New Investigation into One of the Most Notorious Crime Cases of the 20th Century, by David James Smith. It's the only one that doesn't treat poor Cora as some loudmouthed slut who got what was coming to her. Turns out she was involved in a theatrical charity and had a lot of close friends.
  #15  
Old 08-03-2011, 09:03 AM
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A bit off your main course - this is true espionage more than true crime, but at least the spy was a criminal.

I recommend Agent Zigzag:

Quote:
London Times associate editor Macintyre (The Man Who Would Be King) adroitly dissects the enigmatic World War II British double agent Eddie Chapman in this intriguing and balanced biography. Giving little thought to the morality of his decision, Chapman offered to work as a spy for the Germans in 1940 after his release from an English prison in the Channel Islands, then occupied by the Germans. After undergoing German military intelligence training, Chapman parachuted into England in December 1942 with instructions to sabotage a De Havilland aircraft factory, but he surrendered after landing safely. Doubled by MI5 (the security service responsible for counterespionage), Chapman was used to feed vital disinformation to the enemy and was one of the few double agents to delude their German handlers until the end of the war. Meticulously researched—relying extensively on recently released wartime files of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service—Macintyre's biography often reads like a spy thriller. In the end, the author concludes that Chapman repeatedly risked his life... [and] provided invaluable intelligence, but it was never clear whether he was on the side of the angels or the devils. Of the two Zigzag biographies this fall (the other, by Nicholas Booth, is reviewed below), this is clearly superior. (Oct. 9)
A fun romp of a read.
  #16  
Old 08-03-2011, 09:11 AM
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I haven't gotten around to it yet, but I'm looking forward to reading The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr about a serial killer in France in the 1890s.
  #17  
Old 08-03-2011, 09:24 AM
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I haven't gotten around to it yet, but I'm looking forward to reading The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr about a serial killer in France in the 1890s.
I recently read that--excellent!
  #18  
Old 08-03-2011, 09:37 AM
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I love The Valachi Papers. It's a fun look at post-prohibition mob life. Valachi has been accused of being self serving and fabricating, but the scenarios in the book still have power: Shapiro in the oil drum, the Gap getting his brains blown out, and many more.
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Old 08-03-2011, 09:41 AM
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Previous threads with good recommendations.
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Old 08-03-2011, 10:24 AM
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Fatal Vision is an oldie-but-a-goodie about a guy who tried to blame his wife and daughters' murder on drug-crazed hippies. My senior year of high school I took a half-semester "Law" class, and our teacher was slightly too obsessed with the case...we watched the whole miniseries and it also served as our end of semester Mock Trial. That summer I actually checked the book out of the library and read it.

I'll 2nd White City too, but I enjoyed the architecture discussion as much as the serial killer.
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Old 08-03-2011, 11:34 AM
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Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, which is about Gary Gilmore, is astonishly good. And if you're prepared to give comic books a try, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell is a terrific evocation of the Ripper killings and the Victorian London that produced them. The movie was terrible, but the book's great.
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Old 08-03-2011, 11:43 AM
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Evidence of Love. Fabulous book about a woman ax murdered a friend. Oldie, but goodie.
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Old 08-03-2011, 01:02 PM
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Evidence of Love. Fabulous book about a woman ax murdered a friend. Oldie, but goodie.
With friends like these, who needs enemies?
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Old 08-03-2011, 03:25 PM
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Death in the Priory is a really good companion to Suspicions. It's about an unsolved poisoning case, but the pool of suspects was and is really small, just like in the Road Hill House case. The first part is a description of the life and times of the people involved, the second is a narrative of the night of the murder, the third part is the aftetmath: the trial, and what happened to all the people afterwards. Suspicions is slightly better, but Priory comes really, really close IMHO.
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Old 08-03-2011, 04:29 PM
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The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi
The true story is not of your time frame but FWIW there is a connection with Knox/Kercher murder (prosecutor and current judge)

Also George Clooney will star in the movie of the MoF.
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Old 08-03-2011, 07:02 PM
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And if you're prepared to give comic books a try, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell is a terrific evocation of the Ripper killings and the Victorian London that produced them.
But of course it's not nonfiction. Even as far as fiction goes it's pretty bizarre fantasy.
  #27  
Old 08-03-2011, 07:52 PM
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The best book I have ever read on the Crippen case is Supper with the Crippens: A New Investigation into One of the Most Notorious Crime Cases of the 20th Century, by David James Smith. It's the only one that doesn't treat poor Cora as some loudmouthed slut who got what was coming to her. Turns out she was involved in a theatrical charity and had a lot of close friends.
Thunderstruck by Erik Larsen is another good book about the Crippen case, but Larsen juxtaposes it with Marconi's invention of radio. He's pretty fair to Cora, too.

I also second Devil in the White City. Larsen, in general, is good reading.
  #28  
Old 08-03-2011, 08:24 PM
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Another goodie I think was The Devil in the White City, about an criminal as gruesome and evil as the previous one was genteel: http://www.amazon.com/Devil-White-Ci...3900162&sr=1-1
I was going to recommend this one...
  #29  
Old 08-03-2011, 08:38 PM
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I'd recommend The Piano Teacher, by Robert Tannenbaum. It's a somewhat frustrating story of the investigation of a serial killer in the late sixties/early seventies New York, and evokes that grubby era in NYC history very well. Very creepy tale about a mild-mannered guy who lured young actresses into his teaching studio and grew obsessive, then killed them. Worse, the DA kept making poor decisions regarding letting him out on bail (or possibly parole, I don't remember clearly), which led to more tragedy.

Tannenbaum was one of the investigators on the case and his writing is quite captivating. Note that according to Amazon, the newer paperback editions are bizarrely high priced, but Kindle editions and used copies are reasonable.

(I found my hardcover copy in the trash pile in my apartment building. I thought it was gonna be about musicians so I saved it from the incinerator. I'm very glad I did, although I didn't get much sleep for a few nights as I gobbled the book down!)

Edited to add: OH I just thought of another book. Classic Crimes, edited by Julian Symons from the works of William Roughead. Tells the true gruesome tales of murder in 18th and 19th century Scotland and England. If you're looking for colorful true crimes this is definitely a terrific addition to your library.

Last edited by choie; 08-03-2011 at 08:43 PM.
  #30  
Old 08-03-2011, 09:25 PM
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Ann Rule's The Stranger Beisde Me. She actually knew Ted Bundy while he was committing his ghastly murders, and got the contract to write the book before he was even a suspect.
This. Rule is a good writer, and this is her very best; she is right along with the reader as the story unfolds. I don't care for some of her other books, but this is an absolute classic. (I'd also recommend her book Small Sacrifices, about Diane Downs, for those interested.)
  #31  
Old 08-03-2011, 10:12 PM
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I'm currently reading The Killer Department by Robert Cullen. The story of Andrei Chikatilo that was made into the HBO movie Citizen X. It's a good read and offers a lot of info about the nature of police and the justice system under the soviet system. It's out of print, but used copies can be found on amazon for around $1.
  #32  
Old 08-04-2011, 05:03 AM
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Originally Posted by eclectic wench
While I'm picking your brains, does anyone know a really good book in this vein about Jack the Ripper? I read the gobsmackingly bad Patricia Cornwell one (on one page she's pointing out that X is a possibility because there's no evidence that it didn't happen, and by the next page she's using X as a proven fact and the basis for a whole theory...) and I could do with an antidote.
While not as...epic...as The Suspicions, I got a lot of fun out of Jack The Ripper: The Pocket Essential Guide by Mark Whitehead and Miriam Rivett.

It has a narrative portion, where it goes through the murders and the investigation in chronological order, while using the "pauses" between murders to discuss various parallel phenomena, such as Jacks role the development of a newspaper culture, police procedures at the time, a short Abberline bio, why officials were worried about a Peterloo repeat or and anti-Semitic riot, and of course, how prostitution worked.

It also takes the time to flesh out the various investigators, coroners, witnesses, families and so on. I really like the way it takes the time to include a bio on each victim (the "five canonicals", plus Smith and Taybram), and describe how the families were contacted, and who attended the funerals.

Then there are several chapters discussing (and, mostly, debunking) the most popular theories. It takes great care to rip Patricia Cornwall to shreds, which you should enjoy. It also discussed Jack in popular fiction, Jack on stage and screen, Jack as an urban renewer and developer, and has an excellent guide to further reading.

My favorite part of this book is that it doesn't conclude with any theory of its own, its a more "just the facts" approach. It's well written too. There is also a really great audiobook available, where the reader, Lynsey Frost, does a great job of alternating between a serious, compassionate voice when discussing the victims, and a tongue in cheek tone when describing the more outlandish theories and blunders.

Can you tell I really like this book?
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Old 08-04-2011, 07:41 AM
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Edited to add: OH I just thought of another book. Classic Crimes, edited by Julian Symons from the works of William Roughead. Tells the true gruesome tales of murder in 18th and 19th century Scotland and England. If you're looking for colorful true crimes this is definitely a terrific addition to your library.
Oh! You just reminded me: anything by the great Edmund Pearson, who wrote in the 1920s-40s. My grandmother had a collection of his books, so I grew up reading his true crime collections. He happily admitted that he was unhealthily obsessed with Lizzie Borden.
  #34  
Old 08-04-2011, 08:10 AM
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I will add my voice to the recommendations of:
The Devil in the White City
The Monster of Florence
The Killer of Little Shepherds
The Poisoner's Handbook
Agent Zigzag


Now I'm off to track down some of the other books mentioned here and in the other threads...
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Old 08-04-2011, 08:16 AM
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Oh, while I'm at it, the motherlode of information about the Jack the Ripper case is http://www.casebook.org/ - many of the published authors on the subject and most of the genuine JtR experts in the world post there. WARNING: discovering that website will pretty much eat a couple of weeks out of your life, leaving you very well-informed but probably still wondering who, in fact, actually did it.

Last edited by Shakester; 08-04-2011 at 08:17 AM. Reason: Typo fix
  #36  
Old 08-04-2011, 08:31 AM
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OTHO, under no circumstances whatsoever even think about reading Patricia Cornwall's book on the Ripper. It is extremely poorly written, tedious to read, and doesn't make any sense. If all the "might maybes" were eliminated, the book would be about half it's length. I found it on a bus, brought it home and read it. I was overcharged.

I will never read anything of Cornwall's ever again. Whoever told her she could write was mentally ill.
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Old 08-04-2011, 09:21 AM
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Sidney D Kirkpatrick's A Cast of Killers about the mysterious 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor in Hollywood is a great read.

The book begins when Kirkpatrick embarks on a biography of King Vidor and discovers among his papers his plans for a film about Taylor.

He unravels a terrific tale full of mystery, lust, anger and cover ups.

However truTV Crime Library, another good source for the crime buff, questions the accuracy of the book.
  #38  
Old 08-04-2011, 09:34 AM
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Sidney D Kirkpatrick's A Cast of Killers about the mysterious 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor in Hollywood is a great read.
The only reliable source of info on that case, though, is Bruce Long's excellent and addictive but lengthy website Tayolorology.com. The fact that Bruce does not put forth a pet suspect makes me trust him (me, I still think Mary Miles Minter's mother dunnit).
  #39  
Old 08-04-2011, 11:33 AM
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It's not a single narrative, but if you liked the part of Suspicions that dealt with how the Road Hill House case inspired literature, then you might like The Invention of Murder. It describes lots and lots of real life murder cases from way back in the 1700's and forward to Jack the Ripper, and how each case affected the way murder and crime was dealt with in the popular mind.

There are lots of famous ones (Burke and Hare, Dr. Crippen, Amelia Dyer, Mary Anne Cotton and many more) but also reasonably obscure ones, as well as "murder epidemics" like the so-called Poisoning Panic, and cases that were never classed as murder in their own time, like the mistreatment and death from abuse of workhouse children.
  #40  
Old 08-04-2011, 11:49 AM
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This. Rule is a good writer, and this is her very best; she is right along with the reader as the story unfolds. I don't care for some of her other books, but this is an absolute classic. (I'd also recommend her book Small Sacrifices, about Diane Downs, for those interested.)
Green River Running Red about Green River killer Gary Ridgeway is also very good. While Rule prefers to write about lesser publicized crimes, she made an exception with this one. I appreciated that she wrote about the victims as victims, not just "prostitutes who got what they deserved.

Hijack: Ann Rule once wrote that she would like to write a book on the Stayner Brothers--Steven who was abducted by a pedophile and held for seven years, and Cory who is a serial killer now on Death Row. That would be some fine reading.
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Old 08-05-2011, 03:49 PM
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While I'm picking your brains, does anyone know a really good book in this vein about Jack the Ripper?
Complete History of Jack the Ripper is a very interesting and fascinating no nonsense super accurate page turner.
  #42  
Old 08-05-2011, 07:20 PM
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Don't dismiss Helter Skelter out of hand. It started me on a lifetime of reading true crime.
  #43  
Old 08-07-2011, 06:28 PM
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Oh, sweet, a second installment of recommendations and I didn't even have to ask! That sound you hear is me frantically scribbling.

I have to come back when it's not bedtime and update a bit, but one I've read since I started this thread, and enjoyed: The Maul and the Pear Tree, by PD James (whose fiction I've always liked a lot). It wasn't perfect - the conclusion is pretty sketchy and unsatisfying - but I loved the way it was rooted in intricate social/historical detail.
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Old 08-07-2011, 06:49 PM
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And Never let her go by Ann Rule is also very good.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson is very good too.

Jerry Bledsoe's Bitter Blood and Blood Games and While He Sleeps are top notch but not well known.

Last edited by Bijou Drains; 08-07-2011 at 06:51 PM.
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Old 10-01-2011, 11:15 PM
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Many of the ones I'd recommend have already been mentioned but I'll add: Model Crime by Curtis Gathje
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