Today I’m pleased to welcome Desiree Villena to the blog with her pick of some of the best true crime of this year.
If truth is stranger than fiction, does it follow that true crime is stranger than crime fiction? Not exactly — the brilliant minds of crime fiction writers have come up with some pretty twisted stuff. But true crime certainly holds its own as a genre: from Truman Capote’s trailblazing In Cold Blood to modern masterpieces like David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon and Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, haunting tales of true crime have fascinated readers for over sixty years.
And though the classics of the genre are fairly well-known, not everyone realizes just how many incredible true crime books are released every year! To remedy this situation (and provide some fresh titles for your summer reading list), here the five best true crime reads of 2020 so far.
1. The Kidnap Years by David Stout
We all know what happened to the Lindbergh baby in the spring of 1932. But what most people don’t know is just how many children were kidnapped, held for ransom, and brutally murdered in the midst of the Great Depression — the work of hardened criminals who saw kidnapping as a lucrative business, but couldn’t be bothered to actually keep their hostages alive.
In this book, Stout probes the horrific phenomenon of “kidnapping open season” in America, intertwining the story of Charles Lindbergh Jr. with dozens more tragic kidnappings of the time. Stout details how the rise of gangs and blue-collar crime, combined with the grave financial circumstances of the Depression, created a perfect storm for these kidnappings to occur — and how they were only curtailed by the Lindbergh Law. The Kidnap Years may be a tough pill to swallow (especially for parents), but it’s a mesmerizing portrait of this dark era, and a potent reminder of how desperate times truly do lead to desperate measures.
2. Race Against Time by Jerry Mitchell
The atrocious crime at the heart of Race Against Time sounds all-too-familiar today: in June 1964, three civil rights activists were shot and killed in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and no one was charged for their murders. The police weren’t directly responsible, but the killers’ identities were an “open secret” in the department (as the book description notes), and the individuals involved walked away without a physical or legal scratch.
That is, until 2005, when investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell became involved. Race Against Time chronicles his search for the long-buried truths of this ugly triple homicide, culminating in the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, a former organizer of the Ku Klux Klan. Despite the chilling subject matter, Mitchell’s unyielding tenacity and the support he receives from modern-day Mississippi citizens make for a surprisingly hopeful tale — demonstrating that it’s never too late to fight for justice, and that it is a necessary fight to preserve our society’s collective conscience.
3. The Falcon Thief by Joshua Hammer
Shifting to true crime of a lighter persuasion, The Falcon Thief recounts the notorious life of Jeffrey Lendrum, dubbed “the Pablo Escobar of eggs.” Beginning with Lendrum’s petty childhood egg-snatching in Zimbabwe, Hammer magnificently builds up the psyche and motivations of his subject, all the while educating the reader on the development of falconry in the Middle East — the patrons of which made Lendrum the criminal he is today.
What’s particularly impressive about The Falcon Thief is the balance Hammer manages to strike with Lendrum’s character. Though his actions scream of entitlement and ecological contempt, the man himself tells a different story, saying he’s only ever wanted what’s best for the falcons. Of course, the six-figure profits might have something to do with it as well. But even as Lendrum is dancing away from law enforcement and attempting to hold onto his money, you almost have to admire someone who speaks so ardently about birds, and who’s risked his life — scaling trees, dangling out of helicopters, and rappelling down cliffs — to acquire them.
4. Yellow Bird by Sierra Crane Murdoch
For those captivated by the treacherous oil crimes and Native American history embedded in Killers of the Flower Moon, Murdoch’s book provides a much-needed modern perspective on similar topics. Her real-life protagonist is Lissa Yellow Bird, a Native woman whose reservation was devastated by the Bakken oil boom of the late 2000s, which brought addiction and violence to her people as various corporate interests battled for the land.
In the wake of all this, a young oil worker vanished; years after the fact, only Yellow Bird cares what may have happened to him. This compelling, intimate work of true crime, penned by Murdoch with Yellow Bird’s blessing, follows the latter’s quest for answers in an oil-soaked land of chaos and corruption. It also dives deep into Yellow Bird’s personal history — and the parallels drawn between her troubled past and present desire for clarity and redemption are not only moving, but narratively masterful. (For those intrigued by this story but perhaps lacking the time to read a 400-page book, check out Yellow Bird’s recent feature on This American Life.)
5. Relentless Pursuit by Bradley J. Edwards
In Filthy Rich, Netflix’s sobering docu-series about the sexual crimes of Jeffrey Epstein, one of the few bright spots is Brad Edwards — the attorney who fought tooth-and-nail for the survivors to have their day in court, even when it seemed impossible.
Here in Relentless Pursuit, Edwards relates the entire ordeal from his side: the grueling decade he spent chasing Epstein and the shocking experiences of his clients, many of whom would never have had their voices heard otherwise. Edwards devotes plenty of space in this book to the survivors of Epstein’s heinous crimes, as well he should — but he also doesn’t shy away from sharing the gritty details of his own struggles, from sleepless nights at work to threats levied against him and his family.
Indeed, after finishing this book, “relentless” hardly seems a strong enough word; there can be no doubt that Edwards was “the one person Epstein feared could take him down,” through a combination of tactical brilliance and sheer force of will.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best self-publishing resources and professionals. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading thrillers and true crime, as well as writing short stories.