I admit that I don’t like to read historical true crime; still, it both fascinates and repels me. What makes some people think and do the terrible things they do? My own dear sweet mother is a true crime junkie (she’s read more than I can count) but I’ve had my fill with these books. The very few I have read include high profile as well as some obscure cases. The key ingredients for me in reading non-fiction have always been the historical aspect and the quality of the writing. The following books have both in abundance.
The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. I’m a child of the 1970s and, for some reason, I seem to remember a lot of missing persons/serial killer headlines (and one from my childhood in particular, the Oakland County child killer, is still unsolved). One Ann Rule book is plenty for me and this case is the one that started it all for her as the queen of the true crime genre. Rule grew up in my home state of Michigan; her grandfather was a sheriff in a small northern Michigan town, and she was also a police officer, thus her interest in the human psyche. But nothing prepared her for the horror of realizing that the handsome, friendly young man she worked with at a suicide hotline crisis center in the 1970s was Ted Bundy, the serial killer responsible for the disappearance and murder of an unknown number of young women. I admit I skipped the gruesome parts of this gripping book but I liked how Rule put a very chilling spin on her telling of the crimes committed by someone she knew.
Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith. Smith is a mystery novelist but I’ve only read this poignant memoir of her 1950s childhood punctuated by the disappearance and murder of a classmate. In addition to the parallel stories of both the victim and the suspect, Smith tells of the experience and challenge of growing up with an autistic brother and its impact on her life and family.
A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger. This is a very creepy story. In 1960s suburban Boston, a serial killer known only as the Boston Strangler murders a housewife in broad daylight in Junger’s childhood neighborhood. Interweaving the trail of the murderer with events from his own life, acclaimed non-fiction author Junger (The Perfect Storm) reveals that a handyman named Albert De Salvo confessed to the crimes, the same man who did some work for his mother on the day of the Belmont murder.
Arc of Justice: a Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle. Imagine the excitement of buying your very first house. Now imagine feeling intimidated because you are black and you purchased your house in an all-white neighborhood. Ossian Sweet, a man separated by one generation from slavery, was a successful doctor in 1920s Detroit. With his wife and young child, he eagerly moved into their new home. So began a reign of terror that culminated in shots and left a neighborhood white man dead. This little known case was defended by star attorney Clarence Darrow and the very sad story will stay with you long after the book ends.
The Red Parts: a Memoir by Maggie Nelson. Okay, I’m beginning to notice a pattern here. I most likely was attracted to some of these books for both their Michigan connections as well as the fact that they are mostly memoirs. From 1967-69, young women in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti (in Michigan) area disappeared and were later found murdered. Nelson’s aunt was one victim and, at first, it was thought she was yet another victim of the so-called Michigan Murders. Nelson, a poet, recounts the impact the murder had on her family and her life growing up, and her own interest in the case. Coincidentally, while working on a poetry book as a tribute to her aunt, a break in the case finally brought closure for the family.
*This is the third in a series of historical non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed reading and recommending.