Illustration by Paul Spella
We love murder — or, rather, we love stories about it, judging from the success of so many true-crime podcasts (Criminal, Up and Vanished, My Favorite Murder) and TV shows such as Mindhunter, The Mind of a Murderer, and Netflix’s creepy Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Who knows why: Maybe we want to gain a sense of control over what frightens us by trying to understand it, or simply like the heart-pumping feeling of fear when it’s from the safety of our couches.
Whatever the reason, a well-told true-crime story — especially one about how dogged investigators puzzle out the killer — makes for totally mesmerizing reading. If you are up for it, lock your doors, and curl up with one of these recent page-turners.
American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan
This brilliantly reported book is about a monstrous serial killer named Israel Keyes, a stunningly cold-blooded Alaskan construction worker who spent some 14 years killing random people around the country, first burying “kill kits,” consisting of necessary tools and cash near his victims for convenient body disposal and escape. Callahan tells the story from the point of view of the investigators, detailing how they eventually pieced together enough clues to pinpoint Keyes as the man likely responsible for what the author calls “the greatest string of unsolved disappearances and murders in modern American history.” He committed suicide in jail in 2012 at age 34. The nightmare-inducing story is not for the squeamish, but it helps to know from the get-go that the guy is six feet under.
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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
Journalist McNamara describes her unrelenting search for the identity of California’s most notorious serial killer, a man who terrorized the state with at least 13 murders and 50 rapes in the 1970s and ’80s. Sadly, the author passed away suddenly in 2016 at age 46, before she could finish either her quest or her fascinating book, which was completed by writer Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen (see his own book below) under the guidance of McNamara’s husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt. What’s gratifying to keep in mind as you read this book: Just two months after it was published last year, a former police officer named Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested, identified as the Golden State Killer thanks to familial DNA matching, and is now in jail awaiting trial. If only McNamara, who helped keep investigators’ attention on the case, could have lived to see him there.
Chase Darkness With Me: How One True Crime Writer Started Solving Murders by Billy Jensen
Jensen, a journalist and cohost of the podcast The Murder Squad, helped finish I’ll be Gone in the Dark, as mentioned above. He describes being stunned by McNamara’s death (they were friends, bonded by their passion for crime-solving), as well as the thrill of seeing the elusive killer finally identified. The rest of the book is about his compulsion to solve lesser-known, often-ignored cold cases, which he does by devising paid social media campaigns targeted to residents in a crime’s vicinity, hoping someone can identify the perpetrator from what’s typically grainy video footage. Jensen also offers tips and encouragement for readers interested in doing their own crime-solving, arguing that there’s no excuse for criminals to go unidentified in an age when we all carry phones with hi-def cameras and DNA analysis is so advanced. “Nothing is more important than making things right,” he notes, “or at least as right as they can be righted.”