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Blood on the Page: Thomas Harding Picks his Top True Crime Reads

Posted on 25th January 2018 by Martha Greengrass

The author of the ground-breaking history The House on the Lake, Thomas Harding returns this week with a chilling investigation into a real life murder and its aftermath. Described by the Evening Standard as a mystery 'in the best traditions of the true crime narrative... detailed, painstaking and fascinating', Blood on the Page reveals substantial new material Harding unearthed about the murder and its supposed perpetrator, shedding fresh light on a labyrinthine case. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, Harding introduces the book and recommends his own favourite true crime reads.

Allan Chappelow was my neighbour as a child. I lived at number 13a Downshire Hill, he lived four doors up at number 9. He was the strange but friendly old man who drove around on a 1930s Norton motorcycle, his gabardine coat tied by a cord of rope and flapping in the wind. In 2006 he was found in what was once the living room of his dilapidated house, buried under four feet of paper, and covered in wax. He had been bludgeoned to death. 

A Chinese dissident was accused and eventually arrested of the murder. In 2008 his murder trial became the first in modern times to be held in camera: closed, carefully controlled, secret. With whispers of MI6 involvement, a reclusive victim, Triads, and a crumbling mansion in Hampstead, I was hooked. A chance conversation set me off on a two-year journey which resulted in Blood on the Page. But the journey was not easy. As a lawyer said to me as I began, it is a ‘murky, murky story’.

I have always loved true crime books. So when I was asked for my five favourite titles I struggled to keep the list down. It was particularly difficult as the ‘true crime’ genre isn’t easy to categorise. For the purposes of this exercise, I decided that for a book to be considered true crime it must be, as Capote might have said, a ‘version of reality’, involve a serious crime (usually but not always murder), and include an investigation (by a detective, forensic expert, family member or journalist).

So here are a few - sorry there are more than 5 - of my favourites.

Trial of Oscar Slater by William Roughead 

One of the very first True Crime books: forensic, compelling, shocking. In 1908, octogenarian Marion Gilchrist was brutally murdered at home in Glasgow. Jewish immigrant Oscar Slater was quickly accused of the brutal murder and was only released from prison after serving 18 years following a public campaign. His is known as one of Scotland’s most egregious miscarriages of justice.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

A ground breaking, meticulous compiled and controversial (Capote said he could memorise entire conversations with 95% accuracy) work of true crime, and a book that enlivened or possibly inaugurated the genre. If you are going to start somewhere, start here. 

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Often described as the first ‘Non-Fiction novel’, Truman Capote’s infamous account of the appalling murder of a Kansas family which shocked America in the ‘50s is also a classic of the true crime genre, a fastidious piece of investigative journalism, and a pitiless investigation into the motives of evil.
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Helter Skelter: The Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi 

The story of the Manson murders, and the bestselling true crime book of all time. I read this book when I was 18, and for sheer shock value this is a must read. It blew the cobwebs from my teenage skull. If nothing else, check out the book cover for its appalling impact. 

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The shocking true story of the Manson murders is revealed in this harrowing, often terrifying book. America watched in fascinated horror as the killers were tried and convicted. How did Manson make his 'family' kill for him? No matter how much you think you know about this case, this book will still shock you. Helter Skelter won a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award in 1975 for Best Fact Crime

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The Executioners Song by Norman Mailer 

Exploring the anguish caused by the murderer Gary Gilmore and his subsequent execution, Mailer’s ‘novel’ mixes compassion, rigour, effortless style, and outrage at the system, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. 

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In the summer of 1976 Gary Gilmore robbed two men. For those murders Gilmore was sent to languish on Death Row - and could confidently expect his sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. In America, no one had been executed for ten years. But Gary Gilmore wanted to die, and his ensuing battle with the authorities made him into a world-wide celebrity.
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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

More than anything, a book about character and location. A personal journey into the gothic South, and an investigation of a community gone sour. So beautifully described, you can almost feel the humid Savannah night air rising from the pages. 

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A hilariously foul-mouthed black drag queen. A voodoo priestess who works her roots in the graveyard at midnight. A morose inventor who owns a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill everyone in town. At once a true-crime murder story and a hugely entertaining and deliciously perverse travelogue, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is as bracing and intoxicating as half-a-dozen mint juleps.
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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003)

Marketed as both fiction and non-fiction, but surely more ‘true’ than In Cold Blood, Larson tells the story of an architect at the Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer on the rampage. 

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This is the incredible story of The World Fair of 1893, and of the two men whose fates it linked: one was an architect, the other a serial killer. These two disparate but driven men, together with a remarkable supporting cast who converged on the dazzling spectacle of the White City, are brought to life in this mesmerising, murderous tale of the legendary Fair that transformed America.
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But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens

Loridan-Ivens’ startling, sparing and disarmingly honest, this very short book explores the long-term impact of murder on a family. 

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In 1944, at the age of fifteen, Marceline Loridan-Ivens was arrested in occupied France, along with her father. Though he managed to smuggle one last note to her, Marceline never spoke to her father again. But You Did Not Come Back is a testimony of survival, endurance and loss and a love-letter across the distance of time to a man much-loved and much-missed.
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The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Heralded as a ‘True Crime Masterpiece’ (by Vogue and others), Marzano-Lesnevich describes her participation as a death penalty opponent in a murder trial, which triggers memories of her own sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather. Memoir meets true crime to dramatic effect. 

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The gripping true story of a young law student, an unspeakable crime and a past that refuses to stay buried. A groundbreaking, heart-stopping investigation into how the law is personal, composed of individual stories and proof that arriving at the truth is more complicated, and powerful, than we could ever imagine.

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