The best true-crime books of all time? Maybe not

Last weekend, USA Today published a Goodreads list of the “Best True Crime Books of All Time.”

There are some truly great books on the list, compiled from various Goodreads features like reviews, lists, and ratings from 90 million members. Ninety million readers can’t be wrong, can they?

In this case, sort of.

The meaty part of the 11-book list includes everybody’s All-American TC no-brainers: “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, “Executioner’s Song” by Norman Mailer, “Helter Skelter” by Vincent Bugliosi, and “The Stranger Beside Me” by Ann Rule.

Then comes a handful of true-crime books that are stunning but too new to rank in the 11 best of all time quite yet: “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann, “Monster of Florence” by Preston and Spezi, and “Columbine” by Dave Cullen.

Ellroy missing?

Then four decent TC books, but all flavor-of-the-week accounts whose popularity is driven by popular TV shows, headlines, or fabulous back-stories: “Mindhunter” by famed profiler John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, “I’ll be Gone in the Night,” by Michelle McNamara, “Dreamland: A True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” by Sam Quinones, and (for truly quizzical reasons) “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-up” by John Carreyrou.

I’m not questioning the stories, writing, voices, or purpose of any of these books. I am merely adding the single perspective of a reader … albeit a reader with a slightly elevated view of the landscape.

It’s the “of all time” descriptor that trips me up. A few of these books are less than two years old, so they belong on a list of “Best TC Books Since 2015.” A couple are worthy of “Best TC Books of the 21st Century So Far,” and a couple maybe only on several Amazon Wish Lists.

Wambaugh missing, too?

But my pique is tweaked mostly by the books missing from this list, books that are generally a little too literary for the modern true-crime reader’s tastes: “My Dark Places,” by James Ellroy, “Son” by Jack Olsen, “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt, “The Onion Field” by Joseph Wambaugh, and/or “Homicide” by David Simon.

The Goodreads list conflates clicks and classics. It’s less about consequential storytelling and more about marketing. Even my list of the “11 Best TC Books of All Time” would have its arguable holes, but Goodreads has merely posted a celebration of algorithms, not noteworthiness.

Crime writer Ron Franscell is the author ofThe Darkest NightandAlice & Gerald: A Homicidal Love Story,” neither of which belongs on this Goodreads’ list either.
Cover image: Frank McKenna