New York Society Library Writing Life Poets
The Dark Side of the Stacks: True Crime
Although “true crime” is a fairly recently-coined term, the genre itself has centuries-old roots encompassing broadsides, penny dreadfuls, execution sermons, murder ballads, and works like Defoe’s True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). Despite its reputation—not altogether misplaced—as the cynical work of hacks cashing in on our sordid desire to read about fellow human beings run amok, many exceptional works of journalism and nonfiction literature have been produced within the genre, distinguished by riveting storytelling and exhaustive research in the quest to understand our species' seemingly limitless capacity for cruelty and destruction.
Perhaps contrary to its historically genteel image, the Library has an extensive collection of material catering to members’ longstanding interest in the dark side. The 364 call number range in Stack 3, which holds most of our crime-related nonfiction titles, includes nearly 1,100 books, ranging from the 19th century to the present. Our historic pamphlet collection includes several examples of the lurid murder confessions and trial reports that were very popular in the early 19th century.
Some of the Library staff’s favorites from our collection of true crime are described below. We hope you find something here of interest, but be sure to check what sits next to your selection on the shelf. You never know what you might find.
True Crime: An American Anthology | edited by Harold Schechter (2008) 364.1T
With an author list that ranges from Cotton Mather to Dominick Dunne on the 1990s trial of the Menendez Brothers, this compulsively readable, expertly compiled, collection from the Library of America chronicles the underbelly of American history. In addition to fine work from well-known journalists, there are surprise entries from the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln, as well as literary luminaries such as Hawthorne, Twain, Bierce, Dreiser, Mencken, Hurston, Thurber, and Elizabeth Hardwick—names that do not bring to mind the drugstore and bus-depot paperback racks usually associated with the genre.
A few other notables and recent favorites in the stacks include: Edmund Pearson’s Studies in Murder (1924); Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate by Ginger Strand (2012); John Bartlow Martin’s Butcher’s Dozen (1950), particularly for its chilling title piece; and Reporting at Wit’s End: Tales from the New Yorker by St. Clair McKelway (2010). Although perhaps not strictly in the genre, Malcolm Braly’s convict memoir False Starts: A Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons (1976), is highly recommended, and Last Words of the Executed (2010)—which is a compendium of just that—makes for morbidly fascinating reading. – Steven McGuirl, Head of Acquisitions
We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of Lulzsec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency | Parmy Olsen (2012) 364.1O
You don’t need to be a computer nerd to find this tale of cyber-crime gripping. Olsen investigates the story—and the psyche—of the loose association of international and anonymous hacktivists responsible for pranking and protesting institutions as diverse as PayPal, Visa, and the Church of Scientology. Olsen’s excellent pacing drives the underlying narrative about the hunt to find and outwit the Anons, and her clear language even manages to make bots and distributed denial of service attacks comprehensible to admitted non-geeks like myself.
My true crime interests, however, are not limited to the cyber variety. I gravitate toward art crime and art forgery as well. Here are two I highly recommend: Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece by Noah Charney (2010), and The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick (2008). - Carolyn Waters, Assistant Head Librarian
Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life | Robert Lacey (1991) 92 L 2957L
A level-headed businessman (unlike his colorful friend and foil, the manic Bugsy Siegel), Meyer Lansky rose through the ranks of Arnold Rothstein’s 1920s empire to make money in almost every area of 20th century East Coast culture, from jukeboxes to delis to, of course, gambling. Lacey’s clearly written book, awash in the feel of classic Jewish New York, deplores Lansky’s methods but admires his business smarts and perseverance. The surprising account of Lansky’s crew turning to defense of the city during World War II is a particular treat. Throughout, Lacey marvels at how this titan of crime was also “just another schnorrer” who liked to have his buddies over to watch The Godfather (in which he is immortalized as Hyman Roth).
Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series by David Pietrusza (2003). Damon Runyon’s “The Brain,” Rothstein set the standard for 20th-century American organized crime.
Tough Jews by Rich Cohen (1998). A very readable and dangerously funny overview of the Jewish gangsters and their world, and how they served as both cautionary tales and role models for the author. - Sara Holliday, Events Coordinator
The Bobbed Haired Bandit: A True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York | Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson (2006) 364.1D
Nine decades before the Barclays Center set root in Northwest Brooklyn, the area was playground to another controversial idol of consumer culture: 20-year-old laundress turned “gunmiss” Celia Cooney. Desperate, discontent, downwardly mobile—and with a baby on the way—Celia led husband Ed on a series of brazen, fur-coat-clad armed robberies that eluded the police and politicos and captured the public imagination. Their crimes were decreasingly lucrative, though increasingly copied, until a botched Final Take just around the corner from Ed’s childhood home led to their Florida flight and subsequent capture. “Our Story is a story of stories,” local academics Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson state in The Bobbed Hair Bandit: A True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York, a remarkably researched and punchily narrated composite of dialogue, court reports, editorials, illustrations, photos, and political cartoons illustrating how muckraking journalists and their Jazz Age readers “interpreted, recorded, and instrumentalized” their headline heroine—alternatingly posited as a depraved and drug-addled flapper, female Robin Hood, super crook in drag, petty girl gone wild, and Dickensian martyr—until ultimately forgetting her altogether. – Brynn White, Systems and Digital Projects Assistant
Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery | Robert Kolker (2013) Lobby Nonfiction
Robert Kolker knows the problem his book faces. He admits it in the title: no one has been arrested for the murders described in Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery. Even though readers are denied the pleasure of knowing whodunit, Kolker spins an extraordinary tale of the women whose lives led them to their killer’s door. In May 2010, Shannan Gilbert was reported missing. She had been working as an escort and disappeared outside a client’s house near Oak Beach, Long Island. Although Shannan’s remains were never found, seven months into the search police uncovered the remains of four other women, buried in burlap not far from where Shannan disappeared. Kolker’s triumph is the recreation of the lives of these women, escorts all, who follow similar paths from broken homes to the Craigslist ads where their killer found them. - Patrick Rayner, Head of Circulation
Fatal Vision | Joe McGinniss (1983) 364.1M
This account of the conviction of Army surgeon and Green Beret Jeffrey MacDonald for the 1970 murder of his pregnant wife and their two daughters is a personal favorite. It was published thirty years ago and has been the subject of some controversy: In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), the writer Janet Malcolm accused McGinniss of misrepresenting himself to MacDonald in the course of his research, and books by filmmaker Errol Morris (Wildnerness of Error, 2012) and Jerry Allen Potter (Fatal Justice, 1995) have attempted to refute Fatal Vision’s account of these brutal killings. But McGinniss’s analysis is thorough and persuasive, and has stood the test of time. - Laura O’Keefe, Head of Cataloging
Manson: the Life and Times of Charles Manson | Jeff Guinn (2013) Lobby Nonfiction
Forty-four years have passed since Charles Manson and his “family” went on the infamous killing spree that left at least one rising starlet, a Hollywood hairdresser, and an heiress to the Folgers coffee fortune dead. More than 200 books have been written on the story since. What sets Guinn’s apart is the depth of its research, new interviews with actual family members, and the fact that it begins long before the wild-eyed guru arrives in San Francisco to seek followers. When Manson comes to California during the Summer of Love, he is 33, an ex-con set on becoming the rock star he knows he is. The bizarre events that come next—a recording session with a Beach Boy, the move to a dilapidated dude ranch with a group of hippies convinced that he is Jesus—lay the groundwork for the horrific August 1969 murders that contributed to the end of the hippie era.
An excellent companion to Guinn’s biography is Ed Sanders’s loopy The Family: the Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion (1971). Obsessively researched, The Family benefits from Sanders’s interest in the case as it unfolded. Sanders occasionally seems to enjoy his subject matter a little bit too much, but the result is a guaranteed fun and startling read. - Katie Fricas, Circulation Assistant/Events Assistant