It may be the season of Thanksgiving, but a dark Thursday is coming for fans of the wildly popular podcast "Serial": There will be no new installment of Sarah Koenig’s engrossing true-crime investigation this week. A long weekend home with your annoying kid brother and that well-meaning aunt who keeps asking you when you’re going to meet someone nice probably sounds even more dull without an hour puzzling over the case of Adnan Syed and the tragic murder of Hae Min Lee.
The special appeal of "Serial," in a media world already saturated with tawdry true-crime show, lies in Koenig’s willingness to grapple with her own shortcomings as a journalist and with the ethical dilemmas of crime reporting. She develops a relationship with Syed, giving him a voice, but also questioning her own biases in his favor and pointing out the personal factors that might sway her narrative. True crime, as a genre, always risks exploitation -- of the victims, of the accused, of the families torn apart by the crime -- and "Serial" remains ever-conscious of this risk, but also of the genre’s potential for discovery and redemption.
This self-aware, nuanced approach to true-crime narrative didn’t originate with "Serial," of course. While the week off might seem unfortunate, consider it a fantastic opportunity to catch up on some of the crime nonfiction classics that forged a path for the podcast. These books reveal the capacity of true-crime writing, pushing the boundaries of the journalist-subject relationship, examining the ethical conundrums inherent in the genre, crafting precise and insightful character studies, and even allowing for the ultimate reader let-down: an ambiguous conclusion.
Here are nine brilliant true-crime books you need to take home this weekend if you love "Serial":
The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm
Let’s start with the book Lincoln Michel, at Buzzfeed, called
“one book that every fan of 'Serial' should run out and read.” Malcolm’s book is a true-crime book, but also a book about true-crime books; she examines the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted of the 1970 murders of his wife and two children, as well as one of the famous books about the case. Fatal Vision
, by Joe McGinniss, came down heavily on the side of MacDonald’s guilt, and MacDonald later sued McGinniss for maintaining a friendship with him while planning to write a book deeming him a sociopathic killer. The case ended in an out-of-court settlement. As Michel explains, Malcolm dissects the dynamic between journalist and murderer to reveal the inescapable ethical quandaries at the heart of crime reporting: Each is, in some sense, dissembling, hoping to use the other to tell the story they wish to tell.
Fatal Vision, by Joe McGinniss
For a "Serial"-esque deep dive into the MacDonald case, don’t stop with Malcolm’s classic -- in fact, her book might be even better enjoyed after a read through the report she critiques in The Journalist and the Murderer. McGinniss’ book was the first in-depth exploration of the MacDonald murders, and he was given full access ... largely because MacDonald had hired him to write a book defending his innocence. When McGinniss came to believe the evidence pointed toward MacDonald’s guilt, he maintained the pretense of trusting friendship before publishing a book arguing for his guilt. McGinniss’ book is a classic of the genre for other reasons, as well -- it interweaves MacDonald’s own narrative with McGinniss’ precise reconstruction, creating a powerful narrative tension.
A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, by Errol Morris
But wait, there’s more. There were three classic true-crime books written about this one case, and it’s safe to say Koenig would read them all -- so why wouldn’t you? Morris’ book, published after Fatal Vision, argued for MacDonald’s innocence, and, like Malcolm, questions the McGinniss take. Morris takes a deeply literary approach to crime-writing, informing his beautifully crafted narrative with allusions to authors such as Alexandre Dumas and Edgar Allan Poe. His elegant prose and precise line drawings illustrating evidence balance on the line between art and reportage. Morris also takes a more restrained, skeptical approach than McGinniss; rather than building a case, he’s turning over the evidence and finding reasonable doubt everywhere.
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, A Mystery, and a Masquerade, by Walter Kirn
A fascinating addition to the crime nonfiction canon, Kirn’s 2014 book delves into the story of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a grifter who posed as a Rockefeller scion before being exposed and, ultimately, convicted for a 1980s murder. Kirn’s narrative deviates from the standard by exploring his own weaknesses as a writer and investigator -- Kirn himself befriended Gerhartsreiter when he believed the man was a wealthy Rockefeller, and was just as hoodwinked as the swindler’s many other victims. Much of the book, as a result, examines how Kirn came to be deceived; his exploitative desire for an interesting subject to write about, his self-promotional tendency to be deferential to those who appear powerful, his naive awe at the trappings of class. Blood Will Out is both an examination of a master impostor and killer and an exploration of how we fall victim to deceit.
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
It’s possible that you’re a true crime aficionado and haven’t read In Cold Blood, one of the most highly acclaimed nonfiction books in America. If so, it’s time. In Cold Blood, which Capote investigated with the (insufficiently credited) aid of his childhood friend Harper Lee, pieces together a narrative surrounding the brutal slayings of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Capote’s approach, referred to as a nonfiction novel, overturned expectations of the genre, expanding our conception of what was possible for crime writers. It’s also faced frequent accusations of fabricated scenes and quotes, a reminder of the pitfalls of taking a more freehanded approach toward reportage.
The Stranger Beside Me, by Ann Rule
Like Kirn, prolific true-crime author Rule found herself in a shocking position after the arrest of serial killer Ted Bundy -- she knew him. Though Rule, a former police officer, had written for True Detective magazine, The Stranger Beside Me was her first book, launching a long career in the genre. Bundy had been Rule’s coworker at a crisis hotline, and they’d been friends for years at the time of his arrest. She’d been working on a book about a string of murders -- the murders for which he had just been arrested. Instead of simply investigating the murders, Rule had to grapple within the pages of her book with the impossibility of knowing even your dearest friends. She crafts both an excellent piece of reporting and an indelible meditation on how our beliefs about people are guided by external signals that may not hint at the truth beneath.
Happy Like Murderers: The True Story of Fred and Rosemary West, by Gordon Burn
Burn was the author of several excellent true-crime books, but Happy Like Murderers has been sometimes designated his masterpiece. It tells the tale of Fred and Rosemary West and their horrific string of rapes and murders (including those of their own daughters), but undertakes a novelistic character study rather than a straightforward report of the crimes. Using well-chosen details from Fred’s daily life, Burn draws a chilling portrait of the killer as a publicly well-liked and pleasant man who was privately sex-obsessed, affectless, and cold. Though he doesn’t linger over the lurid details of the crimes, the day-to-day reality of the Wests’ marriage, which he fully maps out, may be even more stomach-turning and revealing.
Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial, by Janet Malcolm
Malcolm once again brings her sharp eye and pen to a real murder case, this time the murder-for-hire trial of Mazoltuv Borukhova. A doctor and mother, Borukhova was estranged from her husband and reeling over her recent loss of custody of their four-year-old to him when he was shot at a playground. She was convicted of hiring her cousin, Mikhail Mallayev, to kill her husband. The slim volume takes apart the trial itself, scanning the participants for prejudice and error. She reveals the human frailties of the authorities, including the judge who rushed the trial in order to make his tropical vacation, and the persistent bias against Borukhova, an admittedly abrasive defendant, who was treated shabbily by the court system even before the murder. Malcolm doesn’t rush to satisfy our wish for tidy resolution; she recognizes how much of the crime must remain unknowable and allows her exploration to rest in ambiguity.
Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, by Robert Kolker
Many of the best true-crime books admit the impossibility of finding out the truth. In Kolker’s investigation, the truth is even further from reach. Lost Girls reports on a series of murders of young women on Long Island, which have been termed the work of the Long Island Serial Killer. With no arrests and no known suspects in the case, Kolker has no solution to the mystery to offer, but he does provide a haunting series of portraits of the known victims. The serial killer targeted escorts, perhaps believing them to be without family or loved ones to search for them. But the book shows how loved and missed these women were, and how vital were the lives they lost. While victims’ families often understandably shy from crime reporters -- Hae Min Lee’s family didn’t respond to Koenig’s overtures to speak on "Serial" -- Kolker’s spotlight on the victims lays bare an often-forgotten side of the true-crime narrative.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that Jeffrey MacDonald successfully sued Joe McGinniss over the book Fatal Vision. The post has been updated to clarify that the lawsuit was eventually settled out of court.