True crime is a phenomenally popular genre, even if it does seem to get a rather sniffy critical response. I love it personally - it was the subject of my panel last week in Crimefest - though I can't stand the sort of lipsmacking, prurient kind of true crime book that 'takes you inside the mind of Doncaster's most sadistic cat killer' or some such. The ones rushed into print when the latest big story hits the headlines. These books have always worked best, in my humble opinion, when emotions are less raw, the news carnival has moved on, and time has afforded people some insight. Take Dave Cullen's book about the Columbine high school killings. Cullen was wrapped up in the whole saga, reporting from the scene and aftermath. He could easily have hacked together an 'I was there' tome and sold a mint; instead, after years of research, having taken a step back to analyse his thoughts and his own role in the massacre - he admits the press got things mostly wrong from the start in the rush to instant judgement - he has produced the definitive account of what was a shocking and bewildering crime.
It doesn't feature in this fascinating list, written by Todd Jensen, however. But as we know, lists are entirely subjective. Though I don't expect many of us would argue with their choice of number one. Like all the best books, In Cold Blood is a classic piece of literature of any kind. It broke the mould, by placing the reporter/author in the book's narrative. It has spawned more copycats than any serial killer. And authors have done what they can to insert themselves into the story, while others have washed up there inadvertently. I've just finished The Monster of Florence by Mario Spezzi and Douglas Preston. Preston moved to Florence to write a crime novel, met Spezzi, an Italian journalist who had covered a spate of savage, unsolved killings in the city going back to the early 1970s (and which became the influence behind Thomas Harris's Hannibal). The pair decided to write a book on the case, concentrating on the almost comically botched and disorganised police hunt for the killer. I won't spoil it for you here, but Spezzi and then Preston end up becoming embroiled in the investigation. It's a great read.
Other authors can try too hard to put themselves in the narrative. Joe McGinnis wrote a book about a convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, called Fatal Visions. I've never read it. However, I have read a great little book called The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcom, which is the best book I have ever read about journalism (and includes the immortal opening line 'Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.'). The book covers the aftermath of case that MacDonald launched against McGinnis when his book was published. Basically, before, during and after, McGinnis flattered his subject, gained his trust, convinced him that he believed 100 per cent in his innocence, even when he was found guilty. Then, of course, when the book appeared, MacDonald discovered that McGinnis had stitched him up like the proverbial kipper and portrayed him as a monster. MacDonald filed a lawsuit and the jury believed that MacDonald's complaints were so compelling that five out of six of them were persuaded that a man who was serving three consecutive life sentences for murdering his wife and two small children was deserving of more sympathy than the writer who deceived him.
Looking down the Forensic Colleges list, I see a few more I've read, and many, many more that I haven't but now want to. I remember reading Helter Skelter as a teenager and being utterly terrified by it. Though not quite as terrified as I was by Silence of the Lambs around the same time, which tells you something about the power of both a good crime novel and the imagination. I'm glad Kate Whicher's book creeps on at 21, simply because the book has been such an unexplained success. It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies here in the UK, quite an achievement for an historical true crime book. Look on Amazon UK and you will see hundreds of people complaining that they bought it expecting non-stop blood and guts, and instead got this slow, impeccably researched book which is ostensibly about a murder in Victorian England, but is really about the origins of modern detective work.
Notable absentees that would have made my list, other than some mentioned above, include Beyond Belief, Emlyn Williams book about the Moors Murderers, which manages to rise about the voyeuristic and exploitative. Likewise Gordon Burns' books about The West killings, Happy Like Murderers, and the Yorkshire Ripper, Somebody's Husband, Somebody's Son. Shot in the Heart by Mikhail Gilmore, which tells the Gary Gilmore story from the perspective of Gilmore's brother, and is better than Norman Mailer's book; finally, Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer's book about Mormon fundamentalists and their violent faith (which certainly set a few light bulbs popping above my head when I was writing Blood Atonement.)
I'd love to hear what you think and which books should have made it. Here's the whole list:
1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
2. Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974)
3. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, David Simon (1991)
4. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson (2003)
5. Crime and Science: The New Frontier in Criminology, Jurgen Thorwald (1967)
6. Doctor Dealer: The Rise and Fall of an All-American Boy and His Multimillion-Dollar Cocaine Empire, Mark Bowden (2000)
7. Wiseguy, Nicholas Pileggi (1986)
8. Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, Joseph D. Pistone (1987)
9. Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster, Harold Schechter (1998)
10. Blind Eye: The Terrifying Story of a Doctor Who Got Away With Murder, James B. Stewart (2000)
11. Finders Keepers: The True Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million, Mark Bowden (2002)
12. A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, Jeanine Cummins (2004)
13. The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule (1980)
14. Lethal Intent, Sue Russell (2002)
15. Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders, Terry Sullivan and Peter T. Maiken (2000)
16. The Lives and Times of Bonnie & Clyde, E.R. Milner (1996)
17. Dead Man Walking, Helen Prejean (1993)
18. Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, Bryan Burrough (2004)
19. Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox, Barbie Latza Nadeau (2010)
20. The Killing Season: A Summer Inside an LAPD Homicide Division, Miles Corwin (1997)
21. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale (2008)
22. And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank, Steve Oney (2003)
23. Confessions of Son of Sam, David Abrahamsen (1985)
24. Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill — The Story of Mary Bell, Gitta Sereny (1999)
25. Blood and Money, Thomas Thompson (2001)