I know it's considered low-brow for a bookseller to confess to a love of true crime books but I've always been interested in the 'anti-hero'. People who were apparently so spellbinding they could get people to join gangs/cults, commit murder, or drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Or at least that's how the story goes. There's an attention to detail and to pacing in true crime books that any writer can learn something from.
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi - This is a hefty book but it reads as if it's 50 pages long. Bugliosi zips us through the summer of love, hippies, the political climate in America, and the 'cast of characters', then puts us into the courtroom and smack in the locations where the crimes took place. I don't know that I will ever forget the image of the Manson girls and Charlie with Xs carved into their foreheads. The most haunting part of the book is when Manson says "I am only what you made me. I am a reflection of you". Someone is always going to act out our 'dark side'.
The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer - Norman Mailer to my mind is usually way too heady. In The Executioner's Song Mailer brings us into the world of feelings. Mailer (who seemed to want to portray himself as an 'outlaw') meets up with a man who shows how deep 'outlaw' runs. Mailer stays put and listens and does a great job conveying Gary Gilmore's upbringing and the paths that led him to fighting to be killed for his crimes.
Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore - Mikal, a long time staff writer for Rolling Stone is, yes, Gary Gilmore's brother. Mikal takes an unflinching look at the Gilmores, Utah, and some of the doctrines and myths of both the Mormons (blood atonement, for one) and what it is to be a 'man' in the West.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote - I read this after seeing the film in high school. Even though Robert Blake is hard to get out of your head, Capote's writing had me forgetting there ever was a movie. Capote, simultaneously an 'outsider' and 'insider' in his own life, really seems to understand what it could take to get these men to the point of killing.
The Westies: Inside New York's Irish Mob by T.J. English - Hell's Kitchen Irish mobsters following in the footsteps of the Kerryonians, the Dead Rabbits and the rest of the Five Points gangs. This book is more brutal than the rest. It's fascinating to walk the streets of Hell's Kitchen with the writer as he reveals where the bodies are buried while showing the circuits in these men's brains that made them long to be 'important' and 'known'- even if it was for crime and murders. Not for the squeamish.
When Corruption Was King: How I Helped the Mob Rule Chicago, Then Brought the Outfit Down by Robert Cooley and Hillel Levin - And so I end my true crime list with 'crime' inside the Chicago justice system. I worked in a bookstore in Chicago blocks from where most of the action in this book takes place. Love Cooley or hate him (and I heard plenty on both sides) he's a compelling narrator to the goings-on of the system in Chicago. Mixes in a bit of history and a lot of colorful characters.Who needs to invent characters when real life is chock full of them?