No Guilty Pleasure Here: Why Ethically Executed True Crime Has My Heart

Editor Kat Johnson professes her love of well-done true crime books that strike the right balance between telling an engaging tale and being salacious.

Trend pieces on true crime often point to a pivotal moment when the genre exploded into popularity, sparking the craze for salacious and often exploitive tales of murder, mayhem, and violence. The problem is, which origin story do we mean? Was it the arrival of Serial, the first podcast phenomenon, back in 2014? The 1990s obsession with OJ Simpson, JonBenét Ramsey, the Menendez brothers, and Court TV? Or the 1890s trial of Lizzie Borden, who was legally acquitted of murdering her family, but is still associated with the “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her mother 40 whacks” rhyme in schoolyards today?

I suspect humans have always been drawn to stories of the dark side. Sometimes, as the many women who love true crime will say, it’s a form of protection, a warning—like the grisly fairy tales of old—to stay away from the shadowy woods, or that guy with a creepy-looking van. Sometimes it’s because we have a real, and noble, desire to see justice done. Some of us want to understand the spectrum of human behavior, to be better parents, neighbors, and citizens, to identify warning signs before it’s too late. But often true crime feels a lot like entertainment, the exploiting of the personal tragedies of others for titillation and shock.

This is especially problematic when amateur investigators, unscrupulous journalists, Internet commenters, and others intrude into the private lives of victims or glorify the perpetrators of violence. True crime is often appallingly racist, classist, and gendered, as missing or murdered white women and girls receive endless media coverage while crimes against people of color, LGBTQ communities, sex workers, and poor people are woefully underreported.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The baseball statistician and crime writer Bill James says that when we tame our baser instincts, our interest in crime “does not have to be a wild animal roaming the streets. It can be caged; it can be used for good purposes.” When we choose to engage with true-crime works that meet an ethical bar for compassion, justice, and humanity, it can lead to psychological insight, survival skills, and even the solving of cold cases.

Ethically minded content creators struggle with these questions even earlier in the process. Jennifer Forde, who reported on the audio show West Cork with her husband Sam Bungey, told me, “We had good relationships with all sides—the victim’s family, the accused, law enforcement—and worried a lot about whether each one would feel we were giving too much emphasis or airtime to a competing narrative. But constantly considering what they would make of it all was helpful as it meant we were constantly asking ourselves, ‘Is this fair’?” Interestingly, Forde found that this approach was good for the story, too. “It stopped us from getting too carried away with one narrative,” she says. “Because we had all sides taking part, we had a duty to those contributors to make something that was balanced, and we felt that duty very acutely.”

I think that sense of balance and duty comes through in West Cork, without sacrificing the twists and turns that keep listeners captivated. When stories are told this way, true crime doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. These are the listens I recommend most.

People Who Eat Darkness

This book wins for the grimmest title and creepiest cover around, but take those away and it loses none of its power—it’s simply one of the finest works of narrative crime journalism ever published. Writer Richard Lloyd Parry is a Tokyo-based British journalist who covered the disappearance of 21-year-old Lucie Blackman, a former flight attendant and hostess in the city’s Roppongi neighborhood, in real time. Parry’s commitment to representing Blackman’s full humanity is matched only by his dogged investigation into every other subtlety of the story, from the timeline, cultural nuances, and characters, to mizu shobai, Japan’s complicated female-companionship industry, as well as an intimate articulation of the policing and judicial obstacles at play. If that sounds dry, it isn’t: The villain (and crime) is as wicked as they come, and the narration, by the wonderful Simon Vance, is flawless. I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the In Cold Blood of the modern era.

In Cold Blood

Speaking of: There’s a reason In Cold Blood always crops up on lists like this—it’s handily among the first and best. I read it in high school, and in so doing, my little dormitory bedroom in Providence, RI, transformed into a Kansas farmhouse that let in unimaginable evil, then became a claustrophobic death-row cell block with the time ticking down. Decades later, I approached the Scott Brick-narrated audiobook with a bit more life experience, but equal wonder at its technical mastery. Perfectly paced, psychologically acute, and utterly exhaustive in its accumulation of detail, In Cold Blood is Proustian in its ability to conjure an entire worldview from the relentless probing of every aspect of its subject. We now know Capote was not as “immaculately factual” as he always maintained, but it’s fascinating to realize his attempt to remove himself entirely from the narrative failed—yet still produced a staggering work of art.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Most true-crime buffs love a good conspiracy, but the one David Grann reveals in Killers of the Flower Moon is one of the most chilling in American history. In the early 1920s, dozens of members of the Great Plains’ Osage tribe, who had struck it rich after oil was discovered on their reservation, were systematically murdered—when they weren’t outright robbed or deemed “incompetent” and deprived of their wealth by the federal government. Grann tells the story through the lens of Mollie Burkhart, a full-blooded Osage Indian whose three sisters and brother-in-law were killed one by one under suspicious circumstances; the resulting investigation tested the abilities of the newly formed FBI. The audiobook is narrated by three different performers, all the better to lend additional depth to such a nuanced history. But it is Grann’s command of the material—his exacting reporting, storytelling flair, and generous dose of humanity—that does justice to the atrocities therein.

The Stranger Beside Me

Sometimes you approach true crime like a scientist, nobly plumbing the depths of human behavior or dispassionately weighing the evidence, and sometimes you just let its black wave of malevolence wash over you with a shudder. I listened to The Stranger Beside Me on a camping trip, with my kids snuggled in sleeping bags beside me. As they snoozed, I kept an ear out for bears and succumbed to the terror of knowing the great crime writer Ann Rule had worked alongside Ted Bundy purely by chance—had let him walk her to her car on dark nights, had exchanged letters with the killer, had drunk Chablis with him even after his first arrest (luckily for Rule, she was a few years older and didn’t part her hair down the middle). Part of the narrative thrill is Rule’s late-dawning discovery that her old chum is the very maniac she seeks, yet careful listeners may wonder just how much Rule truly suspected about Bundy in real time. Was it really such a shock when, presented with overwhelming evidence in court, she was literally sick with the realization? Or did she (consciously or not) look past the plain facts a little too long for enhanced dramatic effect? We’ll likely never know, but the incredible fates that collided to bring this book to fruition are, in the end, what elevate it from tabloid fare to true-crime classic. Whether you come to The Stranger Beside Me to untangle these complex questions or for its trusty dopamine rush, you’re guaranteed a queasy ride.

West Cork

I’m a certified true-crime podcast addict (hi, murderinos!) and West Cork is my favorite listen this year. Not since Serial has a podcast had such access to the prime suspect, or immersed listeners so completely in its setting and characters. The 13-part series heads to the rugged coast of County Cork, Ireland to investigate the mysterious 1996 murder of the French woman Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Though never convicted, Ian Bailey was the prime suspect early on and was extensively investigated. In this groundbreaking series, Bailey opened up to reporters Jennifer Forde and Sam Bungey, who approach the subject with sensitivity and balance. “We were conscious to not go poking around in the story of this poor woman’s murder just to make something that was a titillating listen,” Forde says. Though they knew they might not solve the case in the telling, talking to the residents of West Cork gave them another purpose. “The case has been dogged by rumor and misinformation, and because there has never been a murder trial out in the open, there’s a lot of information that gets passed around behind closed doors. We felt there would be real value in speaking to as many people as possible—to get the information firsthand, let the key participants tell their sides of the stories, and then lay it out chronologically and give some order to it.” That approach, which favors what Forde calls the “bizarre truth” of the facts rather than gossip and speculation, helps bring clarity and sensitivity to an otherwise sensational story—and leaves it to listeners to form their own theories and opinions based on the facts at hand.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark

Michelle McNamara exemplified true-crime ethics long before her posthumous best seller gave her the wider recognition she deserved. In the mission statement of her blog, she wrote, “True Crime Diary is not interested in looking back at notorious criminals and saying, Wow. We’re interested in looking at unfolding cases and asking, Who?” That curiosity defined McNamara’s approach—no glorifier or gawker of violence, she came to the subject fueled by a deep desire for truth and justice. Armed with caffeine, a laptop, and the occasional gummy bear, she was a relentless amateur investigator who sometimes assisted law enforcement and a network of like-minded web sleuths. Her prime quarry was California’s Golden State Killer, an uncaught serial rapist and murderer who she gave a name, a partial profile, and a definitive history with I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. She died before the book was published, but her blend of compassion, insight, and accuracy has since hooked so many fans that I hope a much-needed break in the case isn’t far in our future. Editor’s note: On April 24, 2018, authorities arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, based on DNA evidence linked to the crimes of the Golden State Killer. Hear the inside story of the investigation from those closest to the case, including lead detective Paul Holes, in the Audible Original Evil Has a Name.

The Journalist and the Murderer

There are three fascinating audiobooks about Jeffrey MacDonald, the doctor and former Green Beret who was convicted of the brutal 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters. The first, Fatal Vision, is author Joe McGinniss’ contemporary account, which portrays MacDonald as a scheming psychopath who blamed the slayings on a hippie cult while having perpetrated the crimes himself. The more recent A Wilderness of Error, by the filmmaker Errol Morris, is a reexamination of the case that emerges sympathetic to MacDonald. But the most morally interesting is New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, a brilliant and outrageous response to Fatal Vision that tears down the ethics of McGinniss’ approach (he had deceptively ingratiated himself to MacDonald, allowing his subject to believe the book would be flattering in order to gain unprecedented access). The book’s iconic first line—“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”—kicks off the proceedings with a bang. When you’ve listened to enough true crime to get meta with it, this is the gold standard.

The Gift of Fear

True crime can make you feel like cowering under the covers and ordering Seamless for the rest of your life. Gavin de Becker has a better solution. One of the country’s foremost experts on violence, he uses gripping real-life episodes to show how you can better evaluate and predict potentially violent situations, identify warning signs, separate real from imagined danger, and rely on your own intuition as an essential tool for survival. First published in 1998, this book has unfortunately only gotten more relevant as violent crime in schools, workplaces, and public spaces seems to be constantly in the news. And while the podcast My Favorite Murder has recently empowered women to “[expletive] politeness,” De Becker has been evangelizing on that message for 20 years, with clear guidelines for projecting firm boundaries and tuning in to your “brilliant internal guardian”—fear. His heart-thumping stories and harrowing statistics ring my true-crime bells with the best of them, but with a higher purpose in view: Protecting ourselves and our loved ones. Connecting us to our natural instincts. And keeping us from being victims. If you listen to just one audiobook on this list, make it this one.

People Who Eat Darkness

This book wins for the grimmest title and creepiest cover around, but take those away and it loses none of its power—it’s simply one of the finest works of narrative crime journalism ever published. Writer Richard Lloyd Parry is a Tokyo-based British journalist who covered the disappearance of 21-year-old Lucie Blackman, a former flight attendant and hostess in the city’s Roppongi neighborhood, in real time. Parry’s commitment to representing Blackman’s full humanity is matched only by his dogged investigation into every other subtlety of the story, from the timeline, cultural nuances, and characters, to mizu shobai, Japan’s complicated female-companionship industry, as well as an intimate articulation of the policing and judicial obstacles at play. If that sounds dry, it isn’t: The villain (and crime) is as wicked as they come, and the narration, by the wonderful Simon Vance, is flawless. I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the In Cold Blood of the modern era.

In Cold Blood

Speaking of: There’s a reason In Cold Blood always crops up on lists like this—it’s handily among the first and best. I read it in high school, and in so doing, my little dormitory bedroom in Providence, RI, transformed into a Kansas farmhouse that let in unimaginable evil, then became a claustrophobic death-row cell block with the time ticking down. Decades later, I approached the Scott Brick-narrated audiobook with a bit more life experience, but equal wonder at its technical mastery. Perfectly paced, psychologically acute, and utterly exhaustive in its accumulation of detail, In Cold Blood is Proustian in its ability to conjure an entire worldview from the relentless probing of every aspect of its subject. We now know Capote was not as “immaculately factual” as he always maintained, but it’s fascinating to realize his attempt to remove himself entirely from the narrative failed—yet still produced a staggering work of art.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Most true-crime buffs love a good conspiracy, but the one David Grann reveals in Killers of the Flower Moon is one of the most chilling in American history. In the early 1920s, dozens of members of the Great Plains’ Osage tribe, who had struck it rich after oil was discovered on their reservation, were systematically murdered—when they weren’t outright robbed or deemed “incompetent” and deprived of their wealth by the federal government. Grann tells the story through the lens of Mollie Burkhart, a full-blooded Osage Indian whose three sisters and brother-in-law were killed one by one under suspicious circumstances; the resulting investigation tested the abilities of the newly formed FBI. The audiobook is narrated by three different performers, all the better to lend additional depth to such a nuanced history. But it is Grann’s command of the material—his exacting reporting, storytelling flair, and generous dose of humanity—that does justice to the atrocities therein.

The Stranger Beside Me

Sometimes you approach true crime like a scientist, nobly plumbing the depths of human behavior or dispassionately weighing the evidence, and sometimes you just let its black wave of malevolence wash over you with a shudder. I listened to The Stranger Beside Me on a camping trip, with my kids snuggled in sleeping bags beside me. As they snoozed, I kept an ear out for bears and succumbed to the terror of knowing the great crime writer Ann Rule had worked alongside Ted Bundy purely by chance—had let him walk her to her car on dark nights, had exchanged letters with the killer, had drunk Chablis with him even after his first arrest (luckily for Rule, she was a few years older and didn’t part her hair down the middle). Part of the narrative thrill is Rule’s late-dawning discovery that her old chum is the very maniac she seeks, yet careful listeners may wonder just how much Rule truly suspected about Bundy in real time. Was it really such a shock when, presented with overwhelming evidence in court, she was literally sick with the realization? Or did she (consciously or not) look past the plain facts a little too long for enhanced dramatic effect? We’ll likely never know, but the incredible fates that collided to bring this book to fruition are, in the end, what elevate it from tabloid fare to true-crime classic. Whether you come to The Stranger Beside Me to untangle these complex questions or for its trusty dopamine rush, you’re guaranteed a queasy ride.

West Cork

I’m a certified true-crime podcast addict (hi, murderinos!) and West Cork is my favorite listen this year. Not since Serial has a podcast had such access to the prime suspect, or immersed listeners so completely in its setting and characters. The 13-part series heads to the rugged coast of County Cork, Ireland to investigate the mysterious 1996 murder of the French woman Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Though never convicted, Ian Bailey was the prime suspect early on and was extensively investigated. In this groundbreaking series, Bailey opened up to reporters Jennifer Forde and Sam Bungey, who approach the subject with sensitivity and balance. “We were conscious to not go poking around in the story of this poor woman’s murder just to make something that was a titillating listen,” Forde says. Though they knew they might not solve the case in the telling, talking to the residents of West Cork gave them another purpose. “The case has been dogged by rumor and misinformation, and because there has never been a murder trial out in the open, there’s a lot of information that gets passed around behind closed doors. We felt there would be real value in speaking to as many people as possible—to get the information firsthand, let the key participants tell their sides of the stories, and then lay it out chronologically and give some order to it.” That approach, which favors what Forde calls the “bizarre truth” of the facts rather than gossip and speculation, helps bring clarity and sensitivity to an otherwise sensational story—and leaves it to listeners to form their own theories and opinions based on the facts at hand.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark

Michelle McNamara exemplified true-crime ethics long before her posthumous best seller gave her the wider recognition she deserved. In the mission statement of her blog, she wrote, “True Crime Diary is not interested in looking back at notorious criminals and saying, Wow. We’re interested in looking at unfolding cases and asking, Who?” That curiosity defined McNamara’s approach—no glorifier or gawker of violence, she came to the subject fueled by a deep desire for truth and justice. Armed with caffeine, a laptop, and the occasional gummy bear, she was a relentless amateur investigator who sometimes assisted law enforcement and a network of like-minded web sleuths. Her prime quarry was California’s Golden State Killer, an uncaught serial rapist and murderer who she gave a name, a partial profile, and a definitive history with I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. She died before the book was published, but her blend of compassion, insight, and accuracy has since hooked so many fans that I hope a much-needed break in the case isn’t far in our future. Editor’s note: On April 24, 2018, authorities arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, based on DNA evidence linked to the crimes of the Golden State Killer. Hear the inside story of the investigation from those closest to the case, including lead detective Paul Holes, in the Audible Original Evil Has a Name.

The Journalist and the Murderer

There are three fascinating audiobooks about Jeffrey MacDonald, the doctor and former Green Beret who was convicted of the brutal 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters. The first, Fatal Vision, is author Joe McGinniss’ contemporary account, which portrays MacDonald as a scheming psychopath who blamed the slayings on a hippie cult while having perpetrated the crimes himself. The more recent A Wilderness of Error, by the filmmaker Errol Morris, is a reexamination of the case that emerges sympathetic to MacDonald. But the most morally interesting is New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, a brilliant and outrageous response to Fatal Vision that tears down the ethics of McGinniss’ approach (he had deceptively ingratiated himself to MacDonald, allowing his subject to believe the book would be flattering in order to gain unprecedented access). The book’s iconic first line—“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”—kicks off the proceedings with a bang. When you’ve listened to enough true crime to get meta with it, this is the gold standard.

The Gift of Fear

True crime can make you feel like cowering under the covers and ordering Seamless for the rest of your life. Gavin de Becker has a better solution. One of the country’s foremost experts on violence, he uses gripping real-life episodes to show how you can better evaluate and predict potentially violent situations, identify warning signs, separate real from imagined danger, and rely on your own intuition as an essential tool for survival. First published in 1998, this book has unfortunately only gotten more relevant as violent crime in schools, workplaces, and public spaces seems to be constantly in the news. And while the podcast My Favorite Murder has recently empowered women to “[expletive] politeness,” De Becker has been evangelizing on that message for 20 years, with clear guidelines for projecting firm boundaries and tuning in to your “brilliant internal guardian”—fear. His heart-thumping stories and harrowing statistics ring my true-crime bells with the best of them, but with a higher purpose in view: Protecting ourselves and our loved ones. Connecting us to our natural instincts. And keeping us from being victims. If you listen to just one audiobook on this list, make it this one.

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