The best books, podcasts & documentary series to satisfy your love of the macabre
True Crime. It’s dark. It’s true. And it’s all the rage. The genre has been building in popularity—might I say obsession?—since the notorious Jack the Ripper to the heyday of serial killers in the 1970s, from the advent of forensic technology to now, when “armchair” or “internet” sleuths are using online archives and forums to help solve some of the coldest cases to have ever graced the desks of well-worn detectives.
Whether you’re a hardcore expert or a newbie to the scene, here’s our starter kit for finding the best true crime content out there today.
Not quite radio, not quite audiobooks, podcasts are something of an enigma. These audio-only broadcasts have been steadily growing in popularity, especially within the true crime realm. Podcasts are all about the ease of consumption. Listen while driving, filling out spreadsheets at work or doing household chores. (Believe me, the best part is the inexplicable desire to keep cleaning your bathroom when you get to the juicy center of a story). Here are our top 3 suggestions for your listening pleasure:
1. My Favorite Murder
Hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, My Favorite Murder was a breakout hit on the Apple podcast charts, skyrocketing to #1 in less time than it takes for most podcasts to properly hit their rhythm. Every Wednesday, Karen and Georgia take you on a journey to each of their “favorite murders” of the week. Less detailed than many a true crime podcast (they focus mainly on the victims and the impact on families, rather than the perpetrators), these ladies make up for it with their humorous anecdotes and uplifting transparency about mental health and substance abuse. Their success has been so overwhelming that they are even publishing a book to be released in 2019 and have recently launched their own podcast network, Exactly Right. You’ll even find yourself repeating their mantra: Stay sexy, and don’t get murdered.
2. The Teacher’s Pet
Researched and written by renowned Australian crime reporter, Hedley Thomas, The Teacher’s Pet asks the question, “What happened to Lynette Dawson?” Vanishing without a trace in 1982, Lynette was never seen again. No attempt to contact her family, friends or daughters was ever made—and her body was never found. As Thomas uncovers more and more evidence, he questions why her husband, Chris, was never charged with her murder—even after he suspiciously moved his 16-year-old student/lover into the family home only days later. Shrouded in mystery and permeated by a culture of rampant student-teacher sexual relationships, the story drags you deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. Released only in May of 2018 (and still up-and-running as new developments are made), Australian authorities found the podcast riveting enough to reopen investigation. Compelling evidence led to the arrest of and murder charge against Chris Dawson on Dec. 5, 2018. Get caught up and follow this case in real time at theaustralian.com or on any of your favorite podcast platforms.
3. Someone Knows Something
First released in March 2016 by Canadian writer and filmmaker David Rigden, Someone Knows Something examines and investigates cold cases in the hopes of uncovering new information. Each season devoted to a single case, Rigden travels to the towns and communities wrapped up in these unsolved crimes under the assumption that someone knows something. Incorporating interviews and a slew of primary sources, SKS not only explores the cases themselves but examines the effects that these crimes had on the community, the families and their hometown identity. Now up to season four, you have four often-overlooked cases to pursue.
Of course, we should all start out with Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood (if you haven’t read it, do it now), but true crime books are the creme de la creme for horror and crime lovers simply because, well, the authors do their research. While it’s true that some crime nonfiction narratives can be drab and dry (detectives don’t always make the best writers), the following three books are some of the most captivating and enthralling of the genre.
1. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
Published posthumously, Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was a smash hit, hitting the New York Times Bestseller List for nonfiction, where it remained for 15 weeks. After publication of an article in Los Angelos magazine in 2013, in which McNamara herself coined the moniker The Golden State Killer (AKA as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker), she is credited with bringing the case into the public eye decades after the crimes and revamping the investigation with newfound enthusiasm. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark contains truly terrifying accounts of the crimes, leaving you to sleep with the lights on and double- and triple-check your window locks. In an ironic turn of events, 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested only months after the book’s release, having been linked to the crimes when a family member participated in an ancestry DNA program.
2. The Stranger Beside Me
This is an oldie but goodie. And hey, with the new film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (starring Zac Efron) slated to be released in 2019, now is a good time to brush up on your Ted Bundy knowledge. When Ann Rule began this book, it was supposed to be an investigative look into young brunette women disappearing in Washington state and California from 1972-1978. She had no idea that the killer she chased would be a handsome, young aspiring lawyer named Ted Bundy—a friend of hers for nearly 20 years. A former police officer and crime magazine writer, Rule even submitted his name to law enforcement when he matched the description of the killer, where it would be buried amongst thousands of other possible suspects. Not only does she trace Bundy’s life from beginning to end (she continued correspondence right up to his execution), Rule does a phenomenal amount of research into the lives of the victims, painting a well-rounded picture for each sweet young woman that lost her life to a monster. Most people think they know about Ted Bundy—handsome, successful and cunning—but they don’t know how deep the story goes.
3. The Devil in the White City
This one is a bit of a history lesson—but a history lesson of the most fascinating and chilling kind. Following both the narrative of the architectural geniuses behind the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the life of H. H. Holmes, The Devil in the White City examines the explosion of urban growth and tourism in Chicago—and how it created the perfect backdrop for the first American serial killer. With the media attention on Jack the Ripper flaring in the 1880s and early 1890s, Americans had no idea that they would have a monster of the same magnitude in their own backyard. Pharmacist/conman extraordinare H. H. Holmes, through scheming and high turnover of workers, would construct what would later be known as the “Chicago Murder Castle.” Taking up nearly a full square city block, the upper two floors of the “castle” were built to disorient, with conflicting passageways, stairs to nowhere and doors that opened to brick walls. Many of Holmes’s attractive female employees would mysteriously leave Holmes a sizable insurance—others sold for $200 as skeletons to doctors’ offices.
We have all binged Forensic Files, The FBI and Murderous Affairs, but the datedness of these shows can become apparent with crazy 80s hair and blatant disrespect for the “less dead” victims within marginalized groups. While these shows have projected this dark genre of entertainment into the public eye, it’s time to update your watchlist.
1. The Keepers
This one is arguably the heaviest hitter on this list. Now retired grandmothers, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, revived the investigation into the murder of their beloved english teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik, who was murdered in 1969. The first episode would make the case seem somewhat cut and dry, but as more and more information is exchanged and compiled, the allegations of widespread sexual abuse at the Catholic girls’ school become inexorably tangled with the details of the murder. Was Sister Cathy murdered because she threatened to expose the truth? Still unsolved, the Sister Cathy case remains heartbreaking to the former students of Archbishop Keough High School to this very day— and continues to inspire conspiracy theories in every corner of the internet. (Available on Netflix)
2. Wild, Wild Country
Okay, I’ll be honest—there’s no murder in this one. But Wild Wild Country is easily one of my favorite documentaries on Netflix to date, and there’s definitely something to be said about a good cult story. Tens of thousands of followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh descended upon the tiny, sleepy town of Antelope, Oregon in the 1980s and begin to build a city they called Rajneeshpuram. It becomes increasingly clear that the Bhagwan and his right-hand assistant, Ma Anand Sheela, want to take over this corner of the world. (Don’t worry, these names start to roll off the tongue after a few episodes.) In a classic case of corrupting democracy to achieve devious ends, the Rajneeshees were close to infiltrating the state government before the leaders jumped ship under mounting pressure. Beautifully directed cinematography is enhanced by first hand interviews with former members—both those who considered the cult’s collapse a blessing and those who think the demonization of the Rajneeshees ruined their chance of a fulfilled life. The documentary is truly riveting, but there are some critics who believe that it looks too favorably upon the cult. (Available on Netflix)
3. The Confession Tapes
This one is somewhat controversial. In each episode, The Confession Tapes examines a case where the accused claim to have been convicted based on a false confession. False or coerced confessions aren’t as uncommon as you might think, as Rob Warden and Steven A. Drizin explain in their book, True Stories of False Confessions. The key to this show, however, is whether you believe them—and whether the physical evidence could be reasonably matched to their story. While some of the cases are more cut-and-dry than others, this series is great for stirring up argument and discussion. Something tells me that you and your friends will diverge a bit on your opinions at the end of each episode. (Available on Netflix)
4. Murder Maps
For you history buffs out there, this one is a must-watch. (And who doesn’t love a soothing, deep British narrator?) With fantastic direction and dynamite reenacting (I promise, good reenacting does exist), Murder Maps takes you back in time to some of the more shocking murder cases in history, mostly in London and the surrounding area, from the mid-1800s to the 1950s. Some more notable names that the series explores are Jack the Ripper, the Brides in the Bath Killer and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain. The new season is set to be released in 2019, but the first three are available on Netflix.