In very cool guest news, Jeanne of the Bookblog of the Bristol Public Library is back today. Recently she reviewed The Haunted Season by G.M. Malliet. Today she gives some reading suggestions regarding true crime books regarding some major crimes in the past.
Historical True Crime Books
I am partial to mysteries, but I also read some true crime stories. I prefer ones in which the actual murder is not the centerpiece, but which put the crime in context with a broader social or psychological setting. I also prefer author editorializing be kept to a minimum. I find, too, that some of the best ones are historical events, though I’m less keen on new books about the great puzzles simply because authors seem inclined to advance more sensational theories and fewer facts. I don’t think there’s been a non-fiction book proposing Queen Victoria as Jack the Ripper yet, but I won’t be surprised when I find one.
So here are some historical true crime books I’ve enjoyed most over the years. I didn’t start out to put them in any particular order but I realized belatedly that they are in chronological order newest to oldest crime. I also realized that three of my four choices had inspired film versions.
Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by Peter Graham is a real standout for me. Graham does an excellent job of describing life in New Zealand in the 1950s as well as recreating the circumstances under which two teenage girls decided to murder one girl’s mother and how the crime shocked the entire country. This isn’t an expose of a well-known author, but a genuine exploration of how a relationship between two teens could lead to murder. There is a longer review at our blog. The crime was the basis for Peter Jackson’s movie, Heavenly Creatures.
Graham made several references to another sensational crime: the Leopold-Loeb murder. Hal Higdon’s Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century gave a very good account of the two wealthy young men who decided to commit the perfect crime. Like the two girls above, Leopold and Loeb were highly intelligent, brilliant even, and believed themselves to be superior to other people. They hit upon the idea of murdering a boy and disguising the crime as a kidnapping. Higdon includes excerpts from the trial, most notably some of the arguments from Clarence Darrow. Again, the depiction of the era made this a standout book. Rope, a play by Patrick Hamilton, was loosely based on Leopold and Loeb. Alfred Hitchcock turned the play into a film of the same name starring Farley Granger and John Dall as the young murderers and Jimmy Stewart as the man who uncovers the crime.
I picked up Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City because of the author, not the subject. Larson has the knack of making any subject extremely readable, so much so that even if you know the outcome you’re still turning pages. In 1893, Chicago hosted a World’s Fair and a serial killer. The killer was H.H. Holmes, and he was surprisingly modern in his methods. The book is as much about the creation of the Fair as it is about Holmes, and both are fascinating. A film based on the book is in the works, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing Holmes. The film’s director is rumored to be Martin Scorsese.
Finally, I hadn’t heard of the crime in The Maul and the Pear Tree before I read the book, but the author was P.D. James and I felt anything she wrote would be worthwhile. The Ratcliffe Highway murders occurred on two separate days in 1811 and involved two separate families. The murders were notable for their brutality: the victims were bludgeoned and their throats cut. One victim was an infant. There didn’t seem to be any clear motive. Modern readers will find it to be an eye-opening look at a time before DNA analysis, fingerprinting, or blood spatter; there wasn’t even an organized police force to investigate.
For more reviews at the Bookblog of the Bristol Public Library please go to their website.