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.

"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.

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.

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)

Nearly written off by his enemies and questioned by his friends, Martin Luther King Jr. entered Memphis in 1968 as a man besieged by doubt and fatigue. Without his knowledge, he was tracked by a hate-filled escaped convict who could charitably be best described as a loser.

The author tracks the mood of a nation, the roiling waters inside a riverside city, and the inner lives of the people affected by King's murder.

As I wrote earlier this year, the book's "story is told so effectively and efficiently that readers will want to head back in time and pluck the bullet out of the air on that April evening, when the best and worst of America met in Memphis."

4. "Strange Piece of Paradise," by Terri Jentz (2006)

A victim-turned-investigator tells the story of her return trip – 15 years after the event – to try to figure out what went wrong in the small Oregon town near where she almost died in a bizarre 1977 attack.

Determined to understand what happened to her and her friend, she confronts those who had an inkling about what happened but failed to act.

This is both a gripping detective story and a cautionary tale about the decisions we make when we discover the danger lurking in those closest to us.

5. "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective," by Kate Summerscale (2008)

In 1860, a young boy is found dead at an English country estate brimming over with secrets. A detective thinks he's found the murderer, but it couldn't possibly be this person. Or could it?

This book is no refined Agatha Christie tale of mayhem among the ultra-rich (although Christie's books are grittier than you might remember). Instead, it's a tragic and dark page-turner filled with gasp-worthy twists and glimpses into the deep tensions in English society. Make sure you stick around through the final pages.

What are your favorite historical true-crime books from the last decade? Drop us a line in the comments below.

Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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