by T.J. English
Look at any best seller list and what do you see: celebrity tell-alls, celebrity memoirs, topical political books, and mass market novels - books that are generally read quickly and tossed aside. A great non-fiction crime book, on the other hand, is savored like fine wine (or rot-gut whiskey, depending on the cut of your gib). The best of the lot sometimes climb best seller lists and lurk there like a crazy uncle in the attic. If it’s really good – a well-crafted yarn that is also thoroughly researched, notated and sourced – it’s the kind of book you keep on your shelf (or on your Kindle) for a lifetime.
Here is a list of twenty non-fiction crime books that, from my corner of the attic, represent the cream of the genre. Some are of recent vintage, others classics that have withstood the test of time.
1. THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG – NORMAN MAILER. The heavyweight champion of non-fiction crime books. This book succeeds masterfully at the single-most important task of any author: to tell a good story. Beautifully written, with a level of psychological insight that elevates the story of Gary Gilmore, a rampaging killer who goes to the electric chair, to the level of great art.
2. IN COLD BLOOD – TRUMAN CAPOTE. In telling the tale of two drifters who murder an entire Kansas family, Capote created a new genre: the non-fiction novel. Still the best of its kind.
3. AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X – ARTHUR HALEY. The early years of Malcolm Little’s adulthood were mired in crime and sociopathic behavior. How Little educated, redeemed and recreated himself as Malcolm X is one of the most compelling stories in American literature.
4. THE HOT HOUSE – PETE EARLY. There have been many non-fiction books about prison life, but none with the same level of detail and intensity as Early’s exposé about Leavenworth Prison. Harrowing and unforgettable, this book will haunt your dreams.
5. DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY – JONATHAN LARSON. Crafted with the delicacy of a Swiss watch, this book is also creepy and terrifying. An irresistible combination of expert historical research and evocative prose, Larson’s masterpiece about a serial killer loose at the 1898 Chicago World’s Fair was on the New York Times best seller list for two years.
6. SUCKER’S PROGRESS – HERBERT ASBURY. The author of Gangs of New York also wrote this sweeping history of gambling in America. The book is loaded with larger-than-life reprobates and daring chance-takers who blazed a trail in U.S. gambling circles in the century before Las Vegas made it “family friendly.”
7. MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL – JOHN BERENDT. This picaresque exploration of a high society murder in Savannah, Georgia shows how books can do what movies cannot: detail the multi-layered nature of a particular social universe in all its glories and contradictions (if you saw the movie, you know what I mean). The book became a publishing phenomenon for one simple reason: it is a whopping good read.
8. LITTLE MAN – ROBERT LACEY. The life story of Meyer Lansky and arguably the best biography of a major Mob figure ever written. Through scrupulous research and with a healthy dose of skepticism, Lacey punctures many of the myths that grew up around the legendary Jewish Mob boss and underworld financier.
9. A FATHER’S STORY – LIONEL DAHMER. If you’ve ever allowed yourself to wonder what it would be like to be the parent of a monstrous serial killer, this is the book to read. Heartbreaking and disturbing, Dahmer reveals that his son Jeffrey’s psychosis was all the more shocking because his upbringing was seemingly so “normal.”
10. THE OUTFIT – GUS RUSSO. In telling the full story of the Chicago Mob in the years after Al Capone to the end of the Twentieth Century, Russo bites off and masticates a thick t-bone of American history. Exhaustive and masterful, the book details the connections between organized crime and politics that are still deeply ingrained in the fabric of contemporary life.
11. A PICKPOCKET’S TALE – TIMOTHY J. GILFOYLE. There have been other good books on the subject of underworld crime in Nineteenth Century America, but few as well observed and researched as this chronicle of George Appo, a Chinese-Irish con man who lived a life of crime, testified in court against corrupt cops, and played himself on Broadway. A flavorsome depiction of New York City’s urban demimonde, complete with hookers and venereal disease.
12. TOUGH JEWS – RICH COHEN. Some of the most hardened gangsters in American underworld lore were of the Hebrew persuasion. Cohen personalized the story by connecting it to his own family history, and he also unearths long-buried anecdotes about “Kid Twist” Reles, Arnold Rothstein, Lewis “Lepke” Buchalter, “Bugsy” Siegel, Lansky, and others.
13. WISEGUY – NICHOLAS PILEGGI. In telling the story of Henry Hill, a half-Irish, half-Italian mobster from Queens, New York, Pileggi brought the mafia story down from its lofty Godfather perch to the streets where it belonged. Written in the first-person, the book takes the reader on a wild ride through the life of a professional gangster – which director Martin Scorsese rendered faithfully in Goodfellas.
14. ALWAYS RUNNING – LUIS RODRIGUEZ. The process by which first and second-generation immigrant males became lured into the world of gangsterism is a story as American as apple pie. In lyrical and insightful prose, Rodriguez details his youth as a budding Chicano gang banger in Los Angeles. Must reading for young males of any ethnicity, whether Irish, Italian, Asian or Latino.
15. EDUCATION OF A FELON – EDDIE BUNKER. A professional crook and longtime prison inmate, Bunker reinvented himself in later years as a crime novelist and part time actor with a mug that only a mother could love (he played Mister White in Quintan Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs). This non-fiction memoir is a brutally honest look at the criminal life from a man who was redeemed by an impressive literary talent.
16. MY DARK PLACES – JAMES ELLROY. The quintessential hardboiled crime novelist, Ellroy investigates his mother’s long-ago murder and in so doing unearths a number of hideous family secrets. This mesmerizing non-fiction book takes the reader deep into the mind of a brilliant crime writer and sheds light on why his authorial voice is so genuinely twisted.
17. ALL GOD’S CHILDREN – FOX BUTTERFIELD. The story of Willie Boskitt, once termed “the most violent criminal in America,” is a story of poverty and violence as a way of life. Butterfield painstakingly excavates the entire Boskitt family history from Brooklyn back to its Southern roots, showing that violence and poverty were an inheritance going back to Bullwhip Days. A sobering, eye-opening delineation of the roots of American violence.
18. BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE – DEE BROWN. The stain of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans are two institutional atrocities that cast a dark shadow over the American experience. Brown’s classic history of governmental deception and brutality in the war against “the red man” goes a long way towards explaining why violence and predatory crime are so deeply ingrained in our national psyche. A painful though essential read.
19. MANHUNT – JAMES L. SWANSON. John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at the Ford Theatre and went on the lam. For eight days federal agents were hot on his trail. Robert Swanson uses the event to craft a taut thriller that also illuminates many of the most important political and sociological issues surrounding Lincoln’s life and death.
20. TULIA – NATE BLAKESLEE. The gut-wrenching story of a small Texas town in which more than three dozen African American residents were framed on trumped-up narcotics charges by local law enforcement officials. Blakeslee first broke the story for the Texas Observer in 2000, and in his book he broadens and deepens the implications of the conspiracy. An instant classic that exposes the dark side of America’s so-called “War on Drugs.”
T.J. ENGLISH is the author of four non-fiction crime books, including most recently Havana Nocturne, which was on the following best seller lists: New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Publisher’s Weekly and USA Today.