Zodiac, by Robert Graysmith
The Zodiac was a serial killer who operated in the Valejo, California, region during the late 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s. He was never caught. There was never an arrest in the case, though several search warrants were issued, specially for suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. No physical evidence has ever been found to tie Allen to Zodiac, though much circumstantial evidence does. Fingerprints, DNA, polygraphs, none of it matched or could be used against Allen, who died in 1992 from kidney failure. Author Robert Graysmith’s prime suspect was Allen, and Graysmith has written two books on the Zodiac killings. The first book was simply titled “Zodiac,” and it was published in 1986, though it did not name Allen by his real name. The second book, “Zodiac Unmasked,” came out after Allen’s death and does name the suspect. Graysmith was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle during the Zodiac’s killing spree. The writing in this book is solid, and keeps building tension throughout, much like a novel, though you never know who the real killer is. Zodiac himself has always been a mysterious figure who was described by a victim who survived as wearing a mask; Zodiac also was known for mailing taunting letters and cyphers to the police. I’ve always preferred the author’s first book on the Zodiac killer, which is why I feature it here.
Depraved: The Definitive True Story of H.H. Holmes, by Harold Schechter
Holmes is probably the most prolific American serial killer of which few people have heard. He was caught, brought to trial and executed in 1896. He confessed to 27 murders, but the actual body count could have been much, much higher. He had built his own mansion in Chicago and the place was full of secret rooms, tunnels and all kinds of chambers. He supposedly rented out rooms in the mansion, then the renters would disappear. He was also the suspect in many more killings. While in jail, Holmes wrote a book about himself and his case. Schechter’s book about Holmes offers up all the weird facts and everything there is known about the murders. Holmes’ murder trial was probably the most notorious of its kind until that of Lizzie Borden and later, O.J. Simpson.
Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein — by Harold Schechter
The story of Ed Gein truelly first became noticed by the public when Alfred Hitchcock revealed Gein was an inspiration for the movie, “Psycho.” Technically Gein was not a serial killer because he was only tried for killing two people, but his activities were some of the most recorded during modern times. He would dig up bodies and wear the skins. There was evidence he ate parts of the bodies, and the possibility of necrophilia. Gein was found guilty but insane and spent the rest of his life in a psychiatric hospital. The author brings to life the disturbed mind of Ed Gein. And here is my warning: The photos in this book are quite disturbing.
Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, by John Gilmore
The Black Dahlia Murder case has never been solved. There has never been a prime suspect. The Black Dahlia was a nickname of sorts for a young actress named Elizabeth Short, who was discovered mutilated and severed in half at the waist in 1947 in Los Angeles, California. Author Gilmore brings forward plenty of suspects, but no one has ever been held accountable for the crime. An excellent true crime book.
Lizzie Bordon: The Legend, the Truth, and the Final Chapter, by Arnold R. Brown
Until the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s, the trial of Lizzie Borden from the 1890s was likely one of the most speculated-upon American murder trials of all time. Borden was accused of using an ax or hatchet to brutally murder her father and step-mother. Borden was found innocent, but many people then thought she was guilty and many scholars today believe she is guilty. Author Arnold R. Brown isn’t one of those scholars. His theory was that an illegitimate half brother named William Borden was the true killer. Whether you agree with the author or not, this is still a must-read in true crime circles.
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
I’ve saved the best for last. Without a doubt, this is not only the best true-crime book ever written, but one of the best books ever written. Whatever your opinion may be on the death penalty, whichever side you take, the writing in this book is strong enough to both question your beliefs and to confirm them. It’s really a roller-coaster ride for the emotions. The background is the 1959 Kansas murder of farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife, their daughter and son. The two men eventually found guilty of the killings, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, at first are seemingly, totally unlikable. The murders they committed were vicious and awful. But then you get to know the killers, and you get to witness their execution through Capote’s words. Truly, a mesmerizing book.