Who doesn’t love a good crime story — especially one that really happened? The true-crime genre has exploded in the past decade as one of our most popular art forms, leading to a flood of new books, documentaries, podcasts and the return of Court TV, which gives viewers a front-row seat to trials as they happen.
True-crime books have been around for more than 50 years and have been bestsellers since the beginning, showing how much we love these gripping stories.
We wanted to figure out what the best true-crime books ever written were, so we used reviews of the most popular ones from readers at Goodreads and Amazon and gave each book a combined score. “True crime” can be a loose genre, so to tighten it up all the books featured on our list involve murder stories and they had to have been rated by at least 10,000 different users on Goodreads.
How many of these have kept you up at night to read one more page?
25. ‘The Executioner’s Song’ by Norman Mailer (1979)
Goodreads Average: 4.06/5 | Amazon Average: 3.8/5
A controversial classic in the genre, renowned writer Norman Mailer’s lone true-crime book is the only on our list to have won the Pulitzer Prize. Mailer spends more than 1,000 pages writing about Gary Gilmore, who robbed and killed two men in 1976 before demanding to be executed for his crime. “The Executioner’s Song” is about as epic as a true-crime book gets and has been praised for Mailer’s deep look into a murderer’s life and the far-reaching effects a killing can have.
24. ‘The Innocent Man’ by John Grisham (2006)
Goodreads Average: 3.81/5 | Amazon Average: 4.2/5
John Grisham made his name by writing tense, legal thrillers that were entirely fictional but his foray into nonfiction was equally beloved. “The Innocent Man” sees Grisham telling a story about former MLB player Ron Williamson, who was put on death row in the 1980s for the murder of a woman despite a total lack of evidence. Like many of today’s best true-crime stories, this one is more about failings in the criminal justice system than about the particulars of the murder itself. Several Goodreads reviewers used words like “devastating” and “scathing” to describe it.
23. ‘Zodiac’ by Robert Graysmith (1986)
Goodreads Average: 3.90/5 | Amazon Average: 4.2/5
Another classic of the genre, 1986’s “Zodiac” tells the story of the infamous Zodiac killer, who terrorized Northern California starting in the 1960s and was never caught. The book was written by former political cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who helped decode some of the letters the killer sent his newspaper during his spree. Goodreads reviewers were split on whether the book is better than the 2007 movie of the same name that it inspired — but its average score shows that most readers were impressed.
22. ‘Green River, Running Red’ by Ann Rule (2004)
Goodreads Average: 3.94/5 | Amazon Average: 4.2/5
For nearly 20 years, the Green River Killer haunted the Seattle area, killing a confirmed 49 women. This horrible case hits close to home for true-crime author Ann Rule — who has several books on this list — because she lived in the area. “Green River, Running Red” has been praised by many Goodreads reviewers for focusing more on the victims than the killer in telling the story. Rule has proven herself many times as a master of true crime and this has been singled out by readers as one of her best and most chilling tales.
21. ‘Killing Pablo’ by Mark Bowden (2001)
Goodreads Average: 3.95/5 | Amazon Average: 4.3/5
If you were a fan of Netflix’s “Narcos,” you’ll probably love Mark Bowden’s “Killing Pablo,” which inspired the hit series. It looks into the rise of infamous Colombian drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar and the police operations that eventually led to his violent death. The Goodreads description for “Killing Pablo” calls it a “tour de force of investigative journalism” while readers have praised the book for its engaging story and colorful, real-life characters.
20. ‘The Devil in the White City’ by Erik Larson (2003)
Goodreads Average: 3.99/5 | Amazon Average: 4.3/5
Easily the most popular true-crime book of the 2000s — the almost 445,000 ratings it has on Goodreads are second highest on this list — “The Devil in the White City” has also been heavily praised by its many readers. Like some others on this list, this book weaves a true story of murder into the context of a major historical event and features a supporting cast of American icons. It tells the story of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, which was happening at the same time as the disgusting murder spree of Dr. H.H. Holmes, who used a custom-built torture palace to perform his crimes.
19. ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ by John Berendt (1994)
Goodreads Average: 3.91/5 | Amazon Average: 4.4/5
With nearly 200,000 ratings scored on Goodreads so far, 1994’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” stands as another of the genre’s most popular books ever. The crime examined in this story was the shooting death of a male prostitute inside a grand mansion in Savannah, Georgia in 1981. The book became a massive bestseller and was adapted into a movie in 1997. Amazon readers seemed to love it more than those on Goodreads but many reviewers praised the book’s style, saying John Berendt wrote it more like a novel than a dry piece of crime reporting.
18. ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ by Jon Krakauer (2003)
Goodreads Average: 4.00/5 | Amazon Average: 4.4/5
Noted nonfiction writer Jon Krakauer wrote this shattering bestseller in 2003 and it remains one of the best-reviewed true-crime books ever. Krakauer tells the story of a woman and her child who were murdered by two brothers in 1984. The killers, who were Mormon Fundamentalists, claimed they were instructed by God to commit the murders. The book dives deep into the history of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, making it a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection of religion and crime.
17. ‘The Onion Field’ by Joseph Wambaugh (1973)
Goodreads Average: 4.13/5 | Amazon Average: 4.3/5
Fans of true police stories have probably already read Joseph Wambaugh’s “The Onion Field,” or seen the 1979 film it inspired, as it’s one of the all-time classics for that subgenre. But if you haven’t experienced it yet, readers on Goodreads and Amazon praise it as a page-turner. It’s about the kidnapping and execution of two Los Angeles police officers at the hands of two career criminals in the 1960s. Reviewers have compared it to an epic episode of “Law & Order,” with the first half focusing on the crime itself and the second half looking into the dramatic court proceedings that followed.
16. ‘Mindhunter’ by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (1995)
Goodreads Average: 4.07/5 | Amazon Average: 4.4/5
Here’s another favorite that is a must-read for people interested in police procedures. Former FBI agent John Douglas sat down with co-writer Mark Olshaker in 1995 and spilled many stories of his days pioneering the practice of criminal profiling in the 1970s. “Mindhunter” not only gets into the history of this controversial investigative technique but it also gets into the gruesome details and profiles of terrifying serial killers like Wayne Williams and Edmund Kemper. The book was adapted into an acclaimed Netflix series of the same name, which is more fictionalized than the book.
15. ‘Helter Skelter’ by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974)
Goodreads Average: 4.03/5 | Amazon Average: 4.5/5
Another of the all-time classic true-crime books, 1974’s “Helter Skelter” has racked up more than 100,000 ratings on Goodreads so far, averaging out to an impressive rating of 4.03 out of 5 stars. It looks into the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969, carried out by the cult-like group that called itself the Manson Family. Co-author Vincent Bugliosi was actually the prosecuting attorney during the subsequent trial of Charles Manson and his followers, lending some serious authenticity to its material.
14. ‘The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace’ by Jeff Hobbs (2014)
Goodreads Average: 4.16/5 | Amazon Average: 4.4/5
Read any reviews of “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” and you’ll quickly see words like “heartbreaking” and “difficult” pop up. The book is about a young man who was raised in a tough neighborhood in New Jersey before earning himself a full-ride scholarship to Yale. Of course, if the story was that simple and inspiring, it wouldn’t be in the true-crime section. The story is told by Jeff Hobbs, who was Robert Peace’s roommate at Yale. The question of how close Hobbs really was to Peace became a point of criticism for some Goodreads reviewers but everyone agreed that this story was well worth telling.
13. ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote (1965)
Goodreads Average: 4.07/5 | Amazon Average: 4.5/5
Arguably the inventor of the English-language true-crime book — Rodolfo Walsh’s “Operación Masacre” predates it by nearly a decade — Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is the genre’s most popular landmark. It has been rated by more than 467,000 readers on Goodreads, which is by far the most for the genre. Capote took a novelistic approach to writing about the real-life murder of a family in Kansas in 1959. Reviewers continue to praise its style and how chilling the story is. If there’s a single must-read in the true-crime genre, many people would tell you it’s “In Cold Blood.”
12. ‘Fatal Vision’ by Joe McGinniss (1983)
Goodreads Average: 4.10/5 | Amazon Average: 4.5/5
One of the best true-crime tales from the 1980s, “Fatal Vision” comes from noted non-fiction writer Joe McGinniss. This one covers a truly shocking crime: the killing of a pregnant woman and her two small children in 1970. The whole thing becomes even more frightening when you realize the suspected killer is the husband and father of the family, himself an Ivy League-educated doctor who maintained he was innocent. At nearly 700 pages, it’s not a quick read but Goodreads reviewers have praised it for being chilling and detailed.
11. ‘Ghettoside’ by Jill Leovy (2015)
Goodreads Average: 4.12/5 | Amazon Average: 4.7/5
Urban violence, especially in cities like Los Angeles, is a common topic for nonfiction books but 2015’s “Ghettoside” presents just how shattering a single murder of a young person can be to an entire community. Author Jill Leovy examines the 2007 shooting death of 18-year-old Bryant Tennelle, who was killed by a 16-year-old shooter. Leovy gets deep into the LAPD’s investigation and the people close to Tennelle and the shooter, whose lives were forever changed. If you read several of the top reviews from Goodreads readers, you’ll quickly see words like “masterpiece” and see people describe it as an “important book,” which isn’t always the case with true crime.
10. ‘The Stranger Beside Me’ by Ann Rule (1980)
Goodreads Average: 4.14/5 | Amazon Average: 4.5/5
Undoubtedly Ann Rule’s most popular work, “The Stranger Beside Me” is her highest-rated by readers at Goodreads and Amazon. This 1980 bestseller is a look into the killings of Ted Bundy, who happened to be a friend of Rule’s while she herself was covering his slayings (naturally, she didn’t realize this). Part memoir, part investigative piece, “The Stranger Beside Me” has only gotten more popular since the release of Netflix’s “Conversations with a Killer,” which is also about Bundy’s crimes. Reviewers have noted that Rule’s isn’t a technically dazzling writer like Norman Mailer or some others on this list but she knows how to keep you turning the pages.
9. ‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’ by Michelle McNamara (2018)
Goodreads Average: 4.17/5 | Amazon Average: 4.5/5
The newest book to crack the list, Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” proved itself to be an instant classic in the true-crime genre as soon as it hit shelves. It narrates McNamara’s own obsessive work writing about the Golden State Killer, who killed at least 13 people and raped at least 50 people across California. Sadly, McNamara suddenly died in 2016 as she was finishing work on the book, making it an even more haunting read than others on this list. It’s already racked up nearly 100,000 ratings on Goodreads, with readers praising it as a great piece of investigative journalism.
8. ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann (2017)
Goodreads Average: 4.10/5 | Amazon Average: 4.6/5
It took nearly 100 years for this story to be told but David Grann apparently did a fantastic job putting it on paper. “Killers of the Flower Moon” tells the shocking true story of the serial murders of members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma in the 1920s. At least 24 people were killed and the crime was one of the first big ones investigated by the newly-formed FBI. Lovers of American history, including the history of modern policing, will love this one — as long as they can handle plenty of heartbreak.
7. ‘Manhunt’ by James L. Swanson (2006)
Goodreads Average: 4.13/5 | Amazon Average: 4.6/5
Arguably the most famous murder in American history, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln is looked at in this bestseller from 2006. “Manhunt” especially focuses on the sprawling investigation into the whereabouts of shooter John Wilkes Booth, who disappeared for 12 days after the murder. Goodreads says that “Manhunt” goes hour by hour into the hunt for Booth but it’s a brisk read at just over 400 pages. Some Goodreads reviewers have even described the book’s drama as “Shakespearean.”
6. ‘Small Sacrifices’ by Ann Rule (1987)
Goodreads Average: 4.22/5 | Amazon Average: 4.6/5
About 22,000 Goodreads readers have given “Small Sacrifices” an average rating of 4.22 out of 5 stars, making it Ann Rule’s most heralded work. This 1987 classic looks into the murky shooting of Diane Downs and her three children on a road in Oregon in 1983. One of the children died while Downs and two other kids survived but when she told her story to investigators, they started to wonder if she was actually the shooter. Packed with a heartbreaking mystery and plenty of twists and turns, “Small Sacrifices” is the highest-rated true-crime book of the 1980s.
5. ‘Wiseguy’ by Nicholas Pileggi (1990)
Goodreads Average: 4.17/5 | Amazon Average: 4.7/5
Undoubtedly the most classic book from the true-crime subgenre looking at organized crime, “Wiseguy” is famous as the inspiration for the movie “Goodfellas.” The book itself tells the true story of the life and crimes of Henry Hill, who eventually helped investigators bring down many criminals by turning into a federal witness. Nicholas Pileggi gets into plenty of detail in less than 400 pages, giving a crash course in the workings of the mob. It’s rare for people who love a book to also love the movie that was based on it but “Wiseguy” seems to have united both groups if you look at the Goodreads reviews.
4. ‘Columbine’ by Dave Cullen (2009)
Goodreads Average: 4.28/5 | Amazon Average: 4.6/5
You might think there’s nothing more for you to know about the 1999 massacre that happened inside Colorado’s Columbine High School — but you’d be wrong. This highly detailed account of the shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 15 people, including the two shooters, stunned the world. Published 10 years after the fact, Dave Cullen put together what has become known as the definitive account of the shooting. Reviewers on Goodreads have called it “riveting” but also a fantastic piece of straight journalism, giving it the second-highest average Goodreads score of any book on the list at 4.28 out of 5 stars.
3. ‘Destiny of the Republic’ by Candice Millard (2011)
Goodreads Average: 4.21/5 | Amazon Average: 4.7/5
Of all the crazy stories on this list, “Destiny of the Republic” has probably the most epic narrative of them all. Candice Millard’s book is described as a must-read for lovers of both true-crime and historical books. It looks into the 1881 shooting of President James Garfield, the far-reaching politics behind it, the investigation and the doomed fight to save Garfield’s life using medical care that was cutting edge at the time. Readers on Goodreads and Amazon have each given it some of the best ratings possible, with it holding a near-perfect rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars at the latter service.
2. ‘Homicide’ by David Simon (1991)
Goodreads Average: 4.38/5 | Amazon Average: 4.7/5
This true-crime classic was the real-life basis for HBO’s immortal series “The Wire,” which was created by its author, David Simon. For “Homicide,” Simon spent a year with unprecedented access to Baltimore’s homicide investigators and the results were this unflinching account. The Goodreads average score the book has earned is tied for the highest of any true-crime book that met our thresholds and it’s tough to get much better than a grade of 4.8 out of 5 on Amazon — but one book topped it. See below!
1. ‘Red Notice’ by Bill Browder (2014)
Goodreads Average: 4.38/5 | Amazon Average: 4.8/5
Reviews across the board are stellar for “Red Notice,” giving it near-perfect grades from readers at Goodreads and Amazon. The book was written by Bill Browder, who made a fortune managing a hedge fund in post-Soviet Russia before being expelled from the country in 2005 as an enemy of Vladimir Putin. Browder exposed corruption in Russia’s finance system and it led to the torture and murder of his tax attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, in 2009. Browder’s account of the whole thing is shocking and sprawling, reading like a real-life version of the best fictional thrillers.
Want more true crime? Court TV is back in session! The new Court TV is devoted to live gavel-to-gavel coverage, in-depth legal reporting and expert analysis of the nation’s most important and compelling trials. The network runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week on cable, satellite, over-the-air and over-the-top.