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Top 5 historical true-crime books of the last decade

The best true-crime books shine a light on the past, exposing struggles for justice throughout the ages.

By Randy Dotinga / August 5, 2010

"The Devil in the White City" is a true-crime story that suceeds at opening a curtain on a new age and a new century – for both better and worse.

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It doesn't take long for the Bible to get around to telling a tale of murder. The Cain and Abel story offers a crime scene, a cagey suspect, and an interrogator you really don't want to mess with.

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Thousands of years later, we're still riveted by whodunits and why-did-they-do-its.

Historical true-crime books – the ones that chronicle stories from decades or centuries ago – have special appeal because they shine a light on the past, dark corners and all.

Here's my list of the five favorite historical true-crime books from the last decade in alphabetical order. They each expose struggles for justice in places from 19th-century England and Chicago to 20th-century Oregon.

1. "The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America," by Erik Larson (2003)

One of the best-selling true-crime books of all time, this is a two-headed tale of the glory of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair – stunningly, an estimated 27.5 million people flocked to it – and the misery sown by one of America's first known serial murderers.

In his next true-crime book, "Thunderstruck," Larson tried too hard to blend two disparate topics together. But his approach works perfectly here, with both the World Fair and the murders serving to open the curtain on a new age and a new century, for both better and worse.

If you're ever in Chicago, by the way, you can take tours based on the book and visit the fairgrounds that captured the country's attention.

2. "For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder That Shocked Chicago," by Simon Baatz (2008)

Back in 1924, two super-intelligent young men killed a young boy in Chicago for fun. Their story, of upper-class depravity and the limits of justice, is as riveting today as ever.

The author masterfully weaves together many threads: upper-class ennui, anti-Semitism, the death penalty, the influence of psychology, the sensationalistic media, and the most masterful attorney of the time. Just as interesting is what happens to the two murderers after the Trial of the Century.

3. "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin," by Hampton Sides (2010)

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