Have you been listening to Serial? The hit podcast, which aims to cover one story week-by-week, has just ended its first season. Over the course of 12 weekly episodes millions of listeners followed along with reporter and host Sarah Koenig as she re-investigated the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student.
I resisted Serial at first, unwilling to be lured into yet another pop culture phenomenon to have to keep up with, or catch up on. But one evening I relented and by the next morning I was bleary-eyed, having stayed up until the wee hours listening to several episodes of the stuff, and I couldn't wait for more.
Now that the show is over (or, rather, on hiatus until the second season) I am craving something to feed my newfound interest in true crime that will be just as engaging, thoughtful, and spine-tinglingly good.
I found some excellent suggestions in this article on Slate, added a few of my own, and came up with this list of true crime to keep me occupied until the next season of Serial begins.
The events in Serial take place in Baltimore in 1999, which comes across as a pretty gritty, crime-addled place in time. If you've been listening to the podcast you will know, for instance, that Baltimore's Leakin Park is where all the bodies are buried. Literally. As one resident says, "If you're digging in Leakin Park to bury your body, you're going to find somebody else's."
That casually chilling statement echoes a Baltimore Police Department legend recounted by Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. As he tells it, trainees searching for a missing person in the park are reminded by their supervisor that they are looking for one body in particular: "If you go grabbing at every one you find, we'll be here all day."
Simon's engrossing police procedural describes a year spent with Baltimore homicide detectives and gives readers a detailed insider's view of several murder investigations. It received the 1992 Edgar Award in the Best Fact Crime category and was adapted into the groundbreaking crime drama television series Homicide: Life on the Street. Simon also created the critically-acclaimed series The Wire.
One of the things I found most compelling about Serial is the experience of trying to understand the case from the perspective of reporter and host Sarah Koenig. Her struggle to process the myriad facts, claims, ambiguities, inconsistencies, and their implications, exposes a tension between the expectation of cool journalistic objectivity and her unabashed personal interest in the case, as well as the need to spin a captivating murder mystery tale.
Sebastian Junger also has both a journalistic and personal interest in the case he examines in A Death in Belmont. In 1963 a murder took place in Belmont, a few blocks from Junger's childhood home, near Boston, that mimicked the Boston Strangler serial killings. A young black man was quickly tried and convicted for the Belmont strangling but Junger wonders if there isn't a far messier truth. Reviewed in The New York Times. Starred review of the audio format in Publisher's Weekly. Also in these formats: audiobook | eaudiobook | large print | talking book.
In Cold Blood is a true crime classic about the brutal, seemingly random, 1959 murder of four family members in Kansas. Widely praised in the literary community upon its release in 1966, it is sometimes regarded as the first ever "non-fiction novel." Some critics have challenged its factual accuracy and others have argued that although author Truman Capote removed himself from the narrative his presence is palpable in his identification with one of the purported killers. Reviewed in The New York Times. Starred review of the audio format in Publisher's Weekly. Also in these formats: eaudiobook | ebook | film adaptation.
The Journalist and the Murderer is a study of the ethics of journalism that likens "the moral ambiguity" of journalism to a treacherous con game. Author Janet Malcolm focuses on the infamous Fatal Vision case, in which journalist Joe McGinniss nurtured a friendship with accused murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and promised to write a book about MacDonald's innocence, but instead published a book that declared his guilt. Reviewed in The New York Times.
Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere is the story of author Poe Ballantine's neighbour, a college math professor, who disappeared one day in 2006 and was discovered dead several months later. But was it murder or suicide? It is also very much the author's own story: a quirky, often gently humerous, personal account of his life in a small Nebraska town, his rocky marriage, and his experiences raising his autistic son. Starred review in Shelf Awareness. Recently made into a documentary film.
John Safran, a documentarian and comedian (some consider him Australia's Michael Moore), uses humour to great effect in his re-investigation of the 2010 murder of a white supremacist in God'll Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, a Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi. Just as in Serial, Safran tracks down and interviews several of the key players in the case and documents his experience uncovering many different, sometimes contradictory, narratives in his search for the truth. Starred review in Kirkus. Also in these formats: eaudiobook | ebook.
Safran's book owes a debt to Truman Capote as well as John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, an entertaining bestseller about a landmark murder case in Savannah and the remarkable cast of characters involved. Reviewed in Kirkus. Also in these formats: audiobook | ebook | large print reference | film adaptation.
More true crime, available in both book and audiobook formats, at the library: