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Top 10 True Crime Books

An avid reader, Colleen has a Master’s degree in English literature and enjoys writing concise book reviews

What makes a true crime story worth reading?

For my part, a book focused on one or more crimes becomes worth reading when the relationship between the perpetrator and target has caused or impacted the crime. A random shooting, such as someone killed in the crossfire of a gang war, while tragic, has no psychological resonance between killer and victim. Given these parameters, we hope the reader can gain understanding while absorbing legal ethics and principles from these true crime books. Due to their diverse content, I have not listed their order in terms of preference.

1. Obsessed (M. William Phelps)

Akin to many psychopaths, Sheila Davalloo believed any fact or human being who came between herself and her desires deserved to be erased as errors upon the chalkboard of her intended future. Thus, when she became fixated upon fellow pharmaceutical worker Nelson Sessler, his involvement with Anna Lisa Raymundo and Sheila’s own marriage to Paul Christos were mere impediments which needed to be eliminated. Sheila’s sole concern lay in eluding suspicion by both Sessler and the criminal justice system.

The maneuvers Sheila deployed to rid herself of these human hurdles were so complex as to leave the reader wondering whether a hatred of being thwarted became a far more engrossing force than her adoration of Sessler. She knew him to be a cad in that, while supposedly in a relationship with Anna Lisa, he had allowed himself “a fling” with Sheila. Still, after he made clear his intention to return on a permanent basis to Anna Lisa, Sheila’s intricate plots to regain his attention seem more focused upon the power to win than affection and longing.

Author M. William Phelps' meticulous piecing together of interviews and reports brings the reader into whatever room or setting he depicts or describes. This proves true even when Sheila wraps her arms around her husband Paul and rubs his back while assuring him of her devotion after deliberately stabbing him twice in the chest during "a game." During this pretended tenderness, she inwardly hopes he will bleed to death while waiting for an ambulance she had pretended to call. The vileness of this betrayal represents only a fraction of this vixen’s absolute fierceness.

Sheila Davalloo

Sheila Davalloo

Fear succeeds crime, it is its punishment.

— Voltaire

2. Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry (Charles E. Shepard)

One of the cruelest forms of exploitation involves preying upon the fear of death in the ill and/or elderly by supposed philanthropists. A large number of these profiteers utilize religion as a quick path to purse strings. Indeed, my maternal grandmother, as she became feebler, grew increasingly dependent upon contact with televangelists. Although as a family we were glad of the consolation they brought her, we also noted that each postal or phone interchange resulted in her sending a "love offering," or whatever tax-evading term was suggested by these business people in ministerial guises.

In her list of such recipients were Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, a couple who hosted the morning television PTL Club (Praise the Lord) show. Thus, like so many contributors, she felt hurt and betrayed when their fraudulence was revealed, and investigations resulted in prosecution.

When the public learned of Jim Bakker’s involvement with his church secretary, 21-year-old Jessica Hahn, inquiries began to be made into overall operations. Sufficient information was found to result in a 45-year prison sentence for Jim Bakker for various types of fraudulence; the sentence was later reduced to eight and he was released after five. Tammy Bakker was never charged, but was believed to be complicit. Now free, Jim has returned to evangelism. This book depicts all bad things that should not be associated with praising the lord. Overall, it is a shocking account of fraud, scandal, self-indulgence, perversion, antipathy and more.

If poverty is the mother of crime, stupidity is its father.

— Bruce de la Bruyere

3. Gunning for Justice (Gerry Spence)

This book is enriching in that Spence intersperses events in his private life with discussions of examples from his spectrum of true criminal and civil cases where he has been both prosecutor and defense attorney. He has never lost a criminal case. His deft interweaving allows us to see Spence as both a man and a lawyer. In human terms, he is deeply conflicted regarding leaving his first wife to marry his lover. At the same time, he explores both the legal and human aspects of courtroom travail.

The case which founded his reputation was that of the 1979 trial Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee filed by the father and children of the deceased Karen Silkwood, who had been employed by the Kerr-McGee Corporation. Kerr-McGee was found liable in having contaminated Karen with plutonium. As a fairly new lawyer, Spence was fortunate in that the Silkwood case became the subject of profound, lasting interest, spawning several books, films and various presentations, during which his skills were featured.

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4. Celia, a Slave: A True Story (Melton McLaurin)

Prior to the 1850 purchase of Celia by Missouri farmer Robert Newsom, little is known regarding this young African-American young woman. She is believed to have been aged 14 when 60-year-old widower Newsom, his wife having died nearly a year before, decided a nubile girl would prove useful in a number of ways. In addition to helping his adult daughters with cooking, she would be available for whatever other services Newsom might need.

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He gave Celia her own separate cabin. While this gift was considered generous, its purpose was doubtless self-serving. Indeed, until the end of the American Civil War, slaves were viewed as chattels, bought or sold according to the whim or financial needs of the owner. Even if Newsom’s wife had not died, he still would have held the legal right to conduct this transaction.

This arrangement seems to have continued until Celia and George, one of Newsom’s male slaves, fell deeply in love. After the two became lovers, George began threatening to leave Celia unless she ended all intimate contact with Newsom. This is bewildering in that George, himself a slave, must have known the consequences of refusing any demand by a master.

To reveal the ensuing events might lessen readers’ absorption in this wrenching account of early racism in a nation supposedly based on democracy. It will suffice to say Celia’s plight was doubtless one of the thousands of such atrocities carried out during that era.

Slaves being examined for sale at market

Slaves being examined for sale at market

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5. From Cradle to Grave: The Short Lives and Strange Deaths of Marybeth Tinning's Nine Children (Joyce Egginton)

Forensic and psychological research shows motivations for disguising infanticide as “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome” (SIDS) spring from motives ranging from insurance fraud, revenge upon a spouse, and in the case of Marybeth Tinning, a quest for control.

Having married Joe Tinning in 1965, during 1967-1985, Tinning gave birth or adopted 9 children, 8 of whom died while in her sole care. Several of these were attributed to SIDS. In hindsight, it is easy to blame social workers and doctors for failing to suspect and investigate Ms. Tinning long before the last of these deaths occurred. Still, her feigned grief and bewilderment at this series of tragedies was such as to convince clinicians of her innocence and emotional pain.

Tinning’s urge for a type of uniqueness manifested itself when she boasted to a co-worker of the enormity of the hospital file regarding her family. Much of this sprung from the conundrum she created for physicians by bringing her children to them with seemingly inexplicable symptoms. Her joy in her eerie celebrity might well have continued, had she not been apprehended. Author Joyce Egginton presents this deeply disturbing material with both candor and clarity.

Marybeth Tinning

Marybeth Tinning

6. Dying to Get Married: The Courtship and Murder of Julia Miller Bulloch (Ellen Francis Harris)

When Dennis Bulloch urged women, in his personal ad, to "take a chance on success," it would have been fairer to warn them to take a chance on being murdered. While nearly every respondent to this type of ad is acknowledging vulnerability, this was especially true of Julia Miller. Her long-term care of her terminally ill mother had curtailed Ms. Miller’s time and ability to create social ties. So deep was her sense of isolation that, hospitalized for depression after her mother’s death, she asked a nurse if they could be friends after her recovery; she also carried a teddy bear with her everywhere while in the hospital.

Once discharged, while still fragile, she answered Bulloch’s personal ad. Finding him handsome and sensitive, despite some oddities during their courtship, she was delighted when he asked her to marry him. Ultimately, both Bulloch’s marriage proposal and subsequent actions almost certainly sprung from a financial incentive. I found this often poignant book both heart-wrenching and enthralling.

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Norman Kingsley Mailer born January 1923 died November 2007 was a renowned author, journalist, political activist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes

Norman Kingsley Mailer born January 1923 died November 2007 was a renowned author, journalist, political activist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes

7. The Executioner’s Song (Norman Mailer)

Truman Capote’s 1966 “In Cold Blood” created the genre of the creative nonfiction novel also known as "New Journalism." While this sounds contradictory, many true crime books use dialogue pieced together from memories and documentation. This is true of Norman Mailer’s "The Executioner’s Song," in that it is based on intensive research into the evidence and lives of Gary Gilmore and his lover, Nicole Baker.

In January 1977, America pulsed with the news of 36-year-old Gary Gilmore’s choice to be killed rather than spend the remainder of his life behind bars. It seems this good-looking, intelligent, still fairly young man had become too institutionalized to live without constant regimentation.

Mailer begins his book with Gilmore’s release from one prison, then recounts his perhaps subconscious determination to become re-arrested. Despite his family’s willingness to provide him with a job and overall support, he soon resumed his long-term criminal career.

During his brief time of freedom, Gilmore met the alluring Nicole Baker, whose past had also been troubled. Ostensibly due to rage after a serious quarrel with her, Gilmore robbed and murdered two random business owners, which resulted in his own above-mentioned death. Although this book is extremely engrossing, some readers may find Mailer’s compassion for Gilmore a bit out of balance. Perhaps more time and concern for both his victims and those left to mourn them might have received more time and concern.

Diane Downs born August 7 1955. Convicted in 1984 of shooting her three children and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Diane Downs born August 7 1955. Convicted in 1984 of shooting her three children and sentenced to life imprisonment.

8. Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder (Ann Rule)

The word “no” was unacceptable to 28-year-old Diane Downs. Indeed, to this single mother of three children, a refusal of any kind seemed to spur her sense of inventiveness. However, her greatest hurdle arose when she became determined to marry her postal co-worker Robert Knickerbocker

While willing to become involved with Diane, Robert refused to take on fatherhood in any form. Nor could he respect a woman who gave her children up for adoption. This was the framework when, on the night of May 19, 1983, Diane Downs brought her three children to a hospital. She stated a man had broken into her car and shot her in the arm and each of her children, killing one and leaving the other two with serious injuries. Suspicions began to arise when Diane seemed calm and detached regarding the fate of her children.

The remainder of this book discusses the police investigation, aided by Robert Knickerbocker and Diane Downs’ subsequent trial. Crime writer Ann Rule, one of the most renowned in this genre, recounts these events with her usual brilliant blending of compassion and objectivity.

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9. And the Sea Will Tell (Vincent Bugliosi with Bruce Henderson)

Undoubtedly, if any ocean could speak, it could answer countless questions as to drowning throughout the ages, a significant number occurring by the deliberate act of one human being towards another. Eminent lawyer and author Vincent Bugliosi is perhaps best-known for his book "Helter Skelter," which chronicles his prosecution of Charles Manson and his followers. Here, Bugliosi recounts how the bones of one middle-aged woman became pivotal evidence in a case which might well have run aground, had they not been discovered.

In 1974, seasoned houseboat users Mac and Muff Graham had the tragic misfortune of encountering somewhat younger and less experienced fellow houseboaters Buck Walker and Stephanie Stearns. Both couples had stopped for rest and supplies on Palmyra Atoll of the Pacific Northern Line Islands. As with other voyagers, having had little contact with new people for some time, this spontaneous meeting was welcome; trust and friendship quickly evolved.

How could the warmhearted Mac and Muff guess Buck Walker had a prison record, and that his admiration of the accoutrements of their boat would prove deadly? Akin to most psychopaths, Walker believed his coveting something entitled him to its possession. As to the actual owners, if their deaths were essential to his desires, they would be a regrettable biproduct.

Given the vicissitudes of the sea, apparently accidental drownings were far too commonplace to engender a major investigation into the disappearance into its depths of one seafaring couple. However, dismembered human remains were found in 1981. This horrific, true crime story is told with the verve and accuracy which have characterized Vincent Bugliosi's books.

Buck Walker convicted of murder in 1985

Buck Walker convicted of murder in 1985

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10. Fire Lover: A True Story (Joseph Wambaugh)

The thought of a fire investigator / serial arsonist sounds like a tasteless attempt at a joke. Still, these dual personas were opposite aspects of John Orr. Orr’s ambivalence seems to have sprung from conflicting goals. While enjoying his belief that everyone loves a firefighter, he also craved that power to generate fear possessed by the police. Rejected for employment by police management on psychological grounds, Orr proved this judgment correct by becoming a pyromaniac. Then his third aspiration to become a recognized novelist came to the fore, and he wrote a fiction book “Points of Origin” that was in fact a historical account of his arsonist activity.

Eminent crime writer Joseph Wambaugh brings his profound analytical skills to this study of the interweaving aims within the bizarre human mind of John Orr.

 American actor Ray Liotta portrayed convicted arsonist John Orr in the 2002 HBO film "Point of Origin"

American actor Ray Liotta portrayed convicted arsonist John Orr in the 2002 HBO film "Point of Origin"

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What Are Your Favorite True Crime Books?

Do you have a favorite true crime book you would recommend? If so, please comment and let other readers know.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2015 Colleen Swan

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