The Best True Crime Books I Am Probably Going to Get Serial-Murdered for Loving

I am getting so scared even just talking about this!
Publish date:
August 1, 2012
shoppables, true crime, scary things, psychopaths

Too scared to wash my hair.

I am radically, completely AGAINST murder. Seriously, you guys, it is NOT cool. Especially dudes murdering their wives. Just divorce your wife! I know it's hard having everybody see you as the bad guy or whatever, but you know who people really see as bad guys? Murderers.

In fact, I bet if you sit the little lady down and just explain to her that you are thinking of leaving her and/or murdering her in cold blood, she'll probably definitely prefer getting left. (This works in all areas of life, btw, like making dinner plans -- "Chili's or I kill you, bitches.")

No, seriously, NO MURDER.

But I do have this trashy little true crime habit that dates all the way back to that time I burned a book about the Salem Witch Trials in my backyard because I felt so guilty for reading about WITCHES, who are right up there with gambling, Halloween and dirty dancing on the list of non Church-approved topics. I might as well have been tongue-kissing Satan!

To this day, I harbor some residual evangelical guilt about my interest in dark topics, but I also know it's human to be fascinated by that which scares us. And nothing scares me more than the randomness of violent crime. Bad shit just happens sometimes, and there's not much you can do to prevent it. I am getting so scared even just talking about this!

So, right now I am reading about the most bizarre true crime story I have ever encountered. The book is "The Dungeonmaster" and it's the story of James Dallas Egbert, the Dungeons and Dragons playing 16-year-old who disappeared from his dorm room at the Michigan college where he had gained early admission. The college was all like, "Oh, sure we'll take care of your young son; we know just how to handle child prodigies," and then basically forgot Egbert ever existed. Struggling with depression and addiction to drugs he manufactured himself using his knowledge of chemistry, as well as being a closeted homosexual, he entered the steam tunnels under the university with the intention of committing suicide.

His attempt was unsuccessful and he awoke the following night, crawled out of the tunnels and went into hiding at the house of an adult male friend who nursed him back to health for a week, while also having sex with him. All was going well until the story of Dallas's disappearance broke. The friend, who had been, after all, having sex with a minor -- panicked and moved Dallas to the home of a friend. Who then moved Dallas to the home of another friend, until this kid was basically getting passed all over gay community of East Lansing because everybody was so scared of getting blamed for his disappearance. Meanwhile, Dallas is totally strung out and starting to be scared for his life.

Finally, somebody gave him some money and put him on a train to New Orleans, where he tried to commit suicide, again unsuccessfully, lived on the streets for a few days, then got a job in an oil field, before eventually contacting the private investigator on his case and rejoining his relieved parents.

Tragically, he successfully committed suicide just a year after his reappearance.

Written by the private investigator, who covered up all the gay sex and drug use stuff at the time, it's not that great a book, but it's a sad and fascinating story. And it inspired me to share my favorite true crime books for all the rest of you tragedy rubberneckers out there.

1. Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

One of the scariest true crime books ever, not just because Ted Bundy is a terrifying psychopath who repeatedly escaped from prison to kill more innocent women, but because Ann Rule actually knew Bundy, having worked with him as volunteers for a suicide hotline. Rule actually had a book contract to write about the unknown killer before he was caught and revealed to be her friend Ted.

2. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi

A no-duh entry in the true crime canon (like "In Cold Blood," which is too obvious to even mention here), the "true story of the Manson murders," written by the prosecuting attorney in the trial, honestly gave me trouble sleeping. I love sleeping, so I'm not sure why this is a good thing.

3. Columbine by Dave Cullen

A newer entry, Cullen's meticulously researched book about the teenage killers behind the school shooting make a strong argument that Eric Harris was a born psychopath whose vicious nature formed a volatile combination with the depressed, weak-willed Dylan Klebold. He cuts through all the press noise about trench coats and violent video games to give a genuinely chilling look into the criminal mind.

4. The Last Victim by Jason Moss

Like our own Julieanne Smolinski, Jason Moss was a student who wrote to serial killers for a class assignment. Unlike Smo, Moss struck up a correspondence with John Wayne Gacy by modeling himself after Gacy's "perfect victim," culminating in a prison visit in which Gacy attempted to kill him. I just found out researching this piece that the author tragically committed suicide on 6/6/06.

5. Killer Clown by Terry Sullivan

Speaking of Gacy, the definitive book on him was written by State's attorney Terry Sullivan, who was working as a state's attorney just outside of Chicago and would play an active role in uncovering Gacy's crimes. It covers the police investigation of Gacy and his trial and convictions along with his crimes.

6. Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz

In 1977, Terri Jentz and a friend were camping overnight during a cross-country bike trip when someone ran over their tent with a truck before attacking them with an axe. Fifteen years after the fact, she returns to the small Oregon town where it happened to try to solve the crime for which no one was never arrested.

7. Delivered From Evil by Ron Franscell

The subtitle is "True stories of ordinary people who faced monstrous mass killers and survived" and that pretty much sums it up. This book is a compilation of stories about those who escaped from mass murderers, and it will scare the crap out of you.

I thought cupcakes might lighten the mood.

8. The Night Stalker by Philip Carlo

I read this one a long time ago and don't remember a lot of the details, but I kept it so I know I liked it. (It feels wrong to say I "liked" it -- I was fascinated by it?) I also read on Amazon that after this book was published, thousands of women contacted Carlo, begging to be put in touch with Ramirez, who they found sexually attractive.

9. Perfect Murder, Perfect Town by Lawrence Schiller

The definitive Jon Benet Ramsey book, Schiller writes a pretty balanced story about a crime that has never been solved. (For the record, I don't think the Ramseys did it. I know you are interested in my perspective as a master criminologist.)

10. "Green River, Running Red" by Ann Rule

Another by Ann Rule, this well-researched (and giant) book tells the story of the 49 known murders of serial killer Gary Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer. Some of the murders took place in Rule's own Seattle neighborhood, which adds an eerie note to the book. (Come to think of it, Ann Rule seems to be around a lot of serial killing. Has anyone investigated her?)

11. Lucky by Alice Sebold

"The Lovely Bones" writer turns her considerable talent to telling the story of her own brutal rape as a college student at Syracuse University in 1980, its emotional aftermath and the experience of putting her rapist behind bars.

12. The Innocent Man by John Grisham

I always thought of John Grisham as sort of a "dad writer" along the lines of Dean Koontz, but I was really moved by this book about Ron Williamson, a sort of local ne'er-do-well with problems with alcohol and mental illness who was wrongfully convicted of two murders and placed on death row before being exonerated by DNA evidence after multiple decades in prison. It's a really important book and after you read it, you'll want to check out The Innocence Project, which is doing amazing work in helping wrongfully convicted criminals get DNA testing.

OK, I seriously just creeped myself right the eff out, to the point where I just turned around to Corynne and whined, "I'm scared I'm gonna get murdered." Tell me which books I forgot while I get an intern to hold me.

@msemilymccombs is fearing death on Twitter.