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The Best True Crime Books of 2020

Because sometimes current events aren't scary enough.

true crime book covers
Courtesy of the publishers

Say bye-bye to 2020, a year that was truly criminal, by reading this stack of books about people behaving badly and, sometimes, getting caught. According to research published in Journal of Radio and Audio Media, the true-crime podcast audience is predominantly female (73 percent). The question of why women love true crime has launched many a thesis, dissertation, and study. Is it because true crime books are scary fairy tales, cautionary stories that reinforce our fears? Or are they how-to manuals, chock-full of tips on how to escape evildoers?

Interestingly, most of these great new true crime books were written by women. And this year's crop of genre bests is full of riveting memoirs, documenting—sometimes with great pain—crimes women observe; experienced themselves; or tried to learn from. The takeaway could be this: Increasingly, and in keeping with current events, women are speaking out about crime. They are reckoning with their fears and trauma. Instead of keeping silent, women are telling their stories and speaking their truths. And that's not the worst takeaway from the year 2020.

book cover american predator by maureen callahan
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'American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century' by Maureen Callahan

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Killers can be classified as organized or disorganized, depending on the level of planning and mayhem involved in their acts. "Meticulous" is the adjective investigative reporter Maureen Callahan uses for Israel Keyes, who is thought to have killed 11 people before his 2012 arrest. This riveting book explores how Keyes, whom she calls "a new kind of monster," was raised off-grid in Washington State by white supremacist Christians. He liked to plan, and he avoided capture for years, traveling across country and financing his killings by robbing banks. One trick: He'd bury "kill kits" in orange Home Depot buckets across the country. Keyes would retrieve his weapons and then lay in wait for unknown victims to cross his path, the randomness making the murders especially hard to solve. At the end, Keyes enjoyed outsmarting the law enforcement types who swarmed around him in prison as he thwarted their desperate efforts to close unsolved killings.

book cover of 'notes on a silencing a memoir' by lacy crawford
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'Notes on a Silencing: A Memoir' by Lacy Crawford

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This almost-forensic analysis documents a shattering event that occurred when author Lacy Crawford was a teenage student at an elite U.S. boarding school. She presents the story clearly and factually, but feelings of rage, pain, and terror are vivid throughout the narrative. Crawford was sexually assaulted by two 18-year-old male classmates when she was 15. The then-rector of the school discouraged Crawford's father from filing legal charges, saying, "She is not a good girl." Crawford insisted on returning for a final year at the school. She writes searingly of her search for identity and reconciliation with her trauma, and we see how the adults around her failed her again and again.

book cover 'unspeakable acts' by sarah weinman
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'Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession' edited by Sarah Weinman

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This anthology gathers contemporary classics of crime writing, such as Michelle Dean's viral story of the Munchausen-by-proxy mom who drugged her daughter (Gypsy Rose—this was the basis for Hulu's The Act). In "The Reckoning," writer Pamela Colloff looks at the life of a young pregnant woman who was critically wounded in one of our country's first mass shootings in 1966 at the University of Texas. Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita, edited the collection and, like the knowledgeable host of your favorite podcast series, gives context to the stories.

book cover of 'we keep the dead close' by becky cooper
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'We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence' by Becky Cooper

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Becky Cooper was a junior at Harvard in 2009 when she heard whispers about a long-ago murder of a student. Jane Britton was found face-down and bludgeoned to death in 1969 in her apartment on campus. Cooper doggedly tracks down the rumors—did Britton have an affair with a tenured professor in the archeology department? Was the red ochre powder found around her body some kind of death ritual symbolic to one of her colleagues? Was the killing connected to the disappearance of a student on a remote dig with one of Britton's male classmates? This gripping excavation of what really happened also offers an insider's view of the barriers women face in academia.

book cover 'memorial drive a daughter's memoir' by natasha trethewey
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'Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir' by Natasha Trethewey

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Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey writes movingly of how her Black mother and white father broke the law when they married in 1965 Mississippi. But that is not the crime at the heart of this book. Her mother was killed in Atlanta—at the family home on Memorial Drive in the shadow of a Confederate monument—when the author was 19. She weaves the telling of her great personal loss with movingly intimate details of family life and a glimpse of a Black woman's experience in the Civil Rights-era South.

book cover of 'savage appetites' by rachel monroe
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6 of 11
'Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession' by Rachel Monroe

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Author Rachel Monroe delves into four relationships women have with crime: as detective, victim, defender, and killer. You'll read about the heiress who found her life's meaning constructing dollhouses that would teach law enforcement officers how to solve crimes, and follow the woman who inserted herself into the family of a Manson victim. These—and more—fascinating stories explore what draws women to the genre.

book cover of 'dancing with the octopus' by debora harding
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7 of 11
'Dancing With the Octopus: A Memoir of a Crime' by Debora Harding

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The author was a Midwestern teen one snowy day in 1978 when she was abducted from her church parking lot. Debora Harding talked to her young attacker as he drove her around in a stolen van, assaulted her, and asked her family to pay a ransom. The assailant then left her outside to die as an ice storm blew through the city. She didn't—but she did return home to a family riven with dysfunction. Decades later and suffering from PTSD symptoms, she decides to confront her attacker. Their face-to-face prison meeting leaves her with a new understanding of the disintegration of her family.

book cover of 'the case of the vanishing blonde' by mark bowden
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8 of 11
'The Case of the Vanishing Blonde: And Other True Crime Stories' by Mark Bowden

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Author of the thrilling Black Hawk Down (about an ill-fated 1993 U.S. military raid in Mogadishu) Mark Bowden collects six riveting crime stories spanning his career. A 1983 case of a rape in a frat house on an Ivy League campus examines the meaning of consent. In the titular story of a cold case, Bowden follows a private detective solving a seemingly unsolvable mystery. In another story, the LAPD covers for one of their own who is a murderer. Bowden discusses how tech advances helped form crime detection and his crime reporting—from the filmed interrogations to security footage to social media posts.

book cover of 'the third rainbow girl' by emma copley eisenberg
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9 of 11
'The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia' by Emma Copley Eisenberg

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Decades before the author, a New Yorker, worked in this small West Virginia town, two young women were hitch-hiking to a hippy-ish festival called the Rainbow Gathering. Attendees would gather in remote forests to celebrate living a shared ideology of freedom, peace, and harmony. But the two women never made it to their idyllic destination—they were murdered and left on a back road. Thirteen years passed with no one prosecuted for the murders. In 1993, a local farmer was convicted in the case, but was released when the crimes were claimed by a convicted serial killer. Eisenberg merges memories of volunteering with Appalachian teen girls and hanging out with other young adults in the rural area, sharing their music and lives.

book cover of 'the devil's harvest' by jessica garrison
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'The Devil's Harvest: A Ruthless Killer, a Terrorized Community, and the Search for Justice in California's Central Valley' by Jessica Garrison

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Jessica Garrison, an investigative editor at BuzzFeed News, tells this deeply reported, true story like it's a thriller. A professional assassin who evaded police for years, Jose Martinez committed murders-for-hire of poor people of color who, supposedly, "wouldn't be missed." One farmworker was shot to death in front of his wife as they drove to work in the fields. Combining police and trial transcripts with Martinez's handwritten journals and extensive interviews, Garrison tells the story up to and including the surprising sentence in his death penalty trial, where the widow of that early victim finally got a chance to testify.

book cover of 'hell in the heartland' by jax miller
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'Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Case of Two Missing Girls' by Jax Miller

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In 1999 rural Oklahoma, two teenage girls, Ashley Freeman and her best friend Lauria Bible, were having a sleepover at Ashley's home. By morning, the Freeman trailer was engulfed in flames and the girls had gone missing. Ashley's parents were found in the burnt rubble—they had been shot to death. The author writes vividly about life in this beautiful but desolate part of the country, where whole communities have been ravaged by methamphetamine, neighbors turn on neighbors, kids belong to the 4-H Club, and most people are just trying to get by. The case went unsolved for years. Miller relocated to the town of Welch in 2015 and spent four years looking into talk of drug deals, feuding neighbors, and negligent police officers.

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