Sunday, April 7, 2013

Top 10 True Crime/Gruesome Nonfiction Books

by Paul Stansfield

For the past decade or so, my reading habits have changed significantly. I still devour some fiction, but by far the bulk of my pleasure reading is nonfiction. Part of this is because the adage that truth is stranger (and therefore more interesting) than fiction is often true. But part of it is based on my paranoia about copying or even unconsciously plagiarizing other novelists’ creations. I realize that this is kind of stupid in that I’ve already read hundreds or thousands of novels throughout my life, so accidentally ripping someone off is still therefore possible. Even someone as talented as George Harrison was not immune to this, with his “My Sweet Lord”—“He’s So Fine” fiasco. My point is that however misguided or silly my motives, I mostly read the true stuff now. One thing hasn’t changed, however. My taste has gone from reading mostly horror novels, or science fiction and fantasy with disturbing aspects to them, to reading true crime stories, or at least historical accounts with some gruesome aspect to them. Therefore, this will be a Top 10 of my favorite true crime or disturbing nonfiction books. This actually fits in well with my Musa offerings, since if they were true they’d qualify in these categories.

1) In Cold Blood written by Truman Capote in 1965. No discussion of true crime could ignore the book which essentially started the whole genre. Capote’s account of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith’s horrific mass murder of the Clutter family in small town Kansas is both appalling and riveting. So much so that two movies were made basically about the writing of this book.

2) Helter Skelter 1974 by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry. The Tate/LaBianca murders in 1969 shocked the world. Then the revelation that they were committed by a deranged dark hippie cult led by charismatic madman Charles Manson was additionally morbidly fascinating. And who better to tell the story than the prosecutor who locked the murderers (and their evil guru) up? Bugliosi is one of my favorite authors, who also wrote great books about the JFK assassination and the O.J. Simpson case.

3) Alive 1974 by Piers Paul Read. In 1972 the plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes. Over the course of over 70 days the survivors were forced to resort to cannibalism. Incredibly, this was required reading for my class in high school. It was certainly more of a page-turner than say, A Separate Peace or The Iceman Cometh.

4) Zodiac written by Robert Graysmith in 1976. The Zodiac case was a 20th century American version of Jack the Ripper, as both concerned brutal murders, and were committed by a clever maniac who took souvenirs, taunted the press with letters, and was never caught or identified. This book (and to a lesser extent, the 2002 sequel Zodiac Unmasked) gives a fascinating and comprehensive account. Also made into a movie, and shades of the Capote films it was almost more about the author’s unhealthy obsession with solving the crime.

5) You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again 1995/96 by Robin, Liza, Linda, and Tiffany as told to Joanne Parrent. Slightly lighter fare, this includes the stories of several women who were either prostitutes or groupies, and their trysts with famous actors and musicians. Disturbing (some of them were unwilling and/or abused) yet salaciously interesting at the same time. The intimate details of stars like Rod Stewart, Sylvester Stallone, John Ritter, Gary Busey, Vanna White, Dennis Hopper, and many more make for compelling reading.

6) King Leopold’s Ghost 1998, by Adam Hochschild. Horrifying account of how Belgian King Leopold II was responsible for the murders of millions of Africans in the Congo, and escaped without any real punishment and even much notice in history. Conrad’s fictionalized Heart of Darkness if anything soft-pedaled many of the inhuman atrocities here. Well worth reading, but obviously extremely depressing as well.

7) In the Heart of the Sea 2000, by Nathaniel Philbrick. About the real life event which largely inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick. In 1820 the whaling ship the Essex was attacked, and sank by a giant rogue sperm whale. The crew escaped in several small boats, and in the months that followed before some were rescued they were reduced to cannibalism in order to survive. Well researched and very well written, as are all of Philbrick’s books. He also wrote a great book on Custer’s Last Stand.

8) Devil’s Knot 2002, by Mara Leveritt. The West Memphis Three were recently (2011) released after over 18 years in prison for murders that they didn’t commit. Along with the three Paradise Lost documentaries, this is a comprehensive account of the murders, the investigation, and the trial. This is a tough book to get through, as it is so infuriating. The police force bungled the investigation, ignored obvious culprits, and pinned it on three kids essentially because they wore black t-shirts and liked heavy metal music. A film version is due out later this year.

9) Running with Scissors 2002 by Augusten Burroughs. Bizarre, twisted, yet hilarious memoir of Burroughs’s non-conventional upbringing, especially his time with his mother’s psychiatrist’s family. Almost anything went in this weirdo household, including the doctor’s scatological take on entrails-reading. Not surprisingly, the family has accused Burroughs of exaggerating/lying, so there’s that, and parts of the book are difficult to read for graphic reasons, but still, very oddly entertaining.

10) The Hot Zone 1994, by Richard Preston. Bio-terror account of how an infectious virus nearly incapacitated the U.S. in 1993. Has excruciating detail of exactly what Ebola is all about, and how dangerous it is. The copy I have contains a back cover blurb about how horrifying Stephen King found it, so that’s a ringing endorsement.

Picking just ten books was difficult, kind of a morbid, literary version of Sophie’s Choice. Hope I’ve sparked some interest in checking out these books, and I welcome any of your recommendations.

This time, the zombies aren’t the bad guys.

Kurt Minnifield is a fledgling actor playing a zombie in a low budget horror movie. The director and crew decide to move their shooting to lovely and isolated Watkins State Park...only they fail to get proper permission.

Victor Newsome is a thirteen year old trying to shed his nerdy image and learn outdoor skills at a special survival camp. After teaching the boys how to make shelter and kill their own food, the counselors take the boys on a day trip to the neighboring state park--Watkins.

A series of ethical lapses, poor decisions, and bad luck lead to a colossal misunderstanding. Violence erupts as both sides fight desperately against a dangerous set of foes. Who will be more savage--the literal "monsters," or the boys equipped with deadly weapons, and the knowledge of how to use them?

To read an excerpt from Dead Reckoning, please click HERE.

Learn more about Paul Stansfield on his entertaining blog.


KM said...

A great list! I've read most of these, but I'm adding the others to my (enormous) TBR pile!

THank you.

Sharon Ledwith said...

Suddenly, I don't feel so hungry anymore. Great group of reads, Paul! Cheers for sharing and best of luck with all your publshing endeavors!

Paul Stansfield said...

KM--Glad I could help out with some book suggestions. After I compiled this list I had to go back and reread most of them. Thanks for stopping by. Sharon--Yeah, I think it's fair to say that most of these books aren't dinner-time reading for most folks. Appreciate your kind support, as always.

Vonnie said...

WTG Paul. A very DIFFERENT blogpost. Love true crime. Read most of those but now I want to read numbers 5 and 10. Always intriguing to know the real background of crimes - sometimes stuff that goes way back as much as 20 years. Best of luck with Dead Reckoning.

Paul Stansfield said...

Vonnie--Don't think you'll be disappointed by those two books you mentioned. Just finished another interesting true crime account about the 1930's Cleveland Torso Murders. Grim but fascinating. Thanks for dropping in.

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