True Crime: Some of my Best Books

The Daily Beast asked me to list what I consider to be the best books in the true crime genre, and I obliged. Many offerings are what you’d expect – IN COLD BLOOD, THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG, HELTER SKELTER – but there was no way I was going to come up with a list like this and not include one of the formative books of my reading experience, Jurgen Thorwald’s CRIME & SCIENCE, published in English in 1967:

I received this book as a birthday gift from my college roommate

during my freshman year, and I think it played a huge role in why I

pursued a master’s degree in forensic science. Thorwald writes with

exceptional clarity about cases obscure and famous that were solved

through forensic techniques like blood typing and elemental analysis of

gunshot residue. They may now seem quaint in the age of DNA and

CSI-style glamorization, but current criminalists owe a lot to their

chemically-minded pioneers. Both this book and its earlier companion

volume, The Century of Detective—which lost the Edgar Award for

Best Fact Crime to In Cold Blood—ought to be rescued from

out-of-print neglect to educate and entertain new readers.

Jurgen Thorwald wasn’t his real name, and he wasn’t a practicing criminalist or doctor – he was a journalist who studied his chosen subjects in depth and then worked very, very hard to convey complex concepts as concisely as possible to the layman reader. 

And, in THE CENTURY OF THE DETECTIVE, he got the essence of why Sherlock Holmes appealed to millions of readers nearly 100 years after his creation – and still appeals now:

Sherlock Holmes was the harbinger of a kind of criminological investigation which did not fit into any of these special [forensic] disciplines, and which ultimately far surpassed them in range. What Holmes did was to avail himself of all the chemical, biological, physical, and technological methods which were springing up at the turn of the century.

These are two books I’ll be rereading again soon; they are well worth anyone’s time, especially those looking for a good history of how the fields of forensic science and medicine came to be.