Kate Summerscale's Top Five True Crime Stories
The best true-crime books tell urgent, intimate stories that also cast light on a wider world. When a murder is investigated, whether by a detective or a writer, the private is made public, something hidden is revealed, secrets are exposed. Sometimes a murderer has acted out a social as well as a personal disturbance, and the hunt for the killer is also an investigation into motive, place, and time.
My new book, The Wicked Boy, is about a 13-year-old boy who was charged with the murder of his mother in east London in 1895. To understand what he did and why he might have done it, I explored every aspect that I could of his world: the east London schools he attended, the cattle-ships on which his father worked, the coffee shops and pawnbrokers he frequented, the ‘penny dreadful’ stories he read, the cricketers he admired, the murderers he emulated.
To my surprise, my research took me beyond the London docklands and the Old Bailey to the Broadmoor criminal lunatic asylum in Berkshire, the ridges of Gallipoli, and the home of a violent share-farmer in 1930s Australia.
1. People who Eat Darkness: Love, Grief and a Journey into Japan’s Shadows by Richard Lloyd Parry
A superb investigation into the murder of Lucie Blackman, a young Englishwoman who was abducted while working as a hostess in a Tokyo nightclub. Lloyd Parry’s book lights up all kinds of strange corners of Japanese society — the oddities of its justice system, its attitudes towards Korean immigrants and Western women — while also charting the suffering and confusion that this case inflicted on the victim’s family.
2. The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave Robbery in 1830s London by Sarah Wise
The death of an anonymous orphan in 1831 opens into an extraordinarily rich examination of the London underclass in the early 19th century. The lost boy is a figure for the people forgotten by history, and Wise does a tremendous job of recovering their lives.
A harrowing, engrossing account of an Australian man’s trial for the murder of his three sons, who died when his car went off the road and sank in a dam. His lawyers claimed that he had blacked out; the prosecution argued that he had deliberately driven his car into the water in order to punish his wife, from whom he was separated. Garner’s observations are wonderfully acute, both compassionate and fearless. Like Blake Morrison’s As If, about the murder of James Bulger, this book is as much an essay on motive and justice as a report on a single crime.
4. Happy Like Murderers: the True Story of Fred and Rosemary West by Gordon Burn
A deeply unsettling recreation of the lives of a Gloucester couple who between 1967 and 1987 raped, tortured and killed a series of young women. Like Truman Capote in his pioneering ‘non-fiction novel’ In Cold Blood, and Norman Mailer in The Executioner’s Song, Burn gives us a chilling vision of what the world looked like to the perpetrators of horrific crimes.
5. One of Us: the Story of a Massacre and its Aftermath by Asne Seierstad, translated by Sarah Death
Seierstad reconstructs in compelling detail the life of her countryman Anders Breivik, who shot down 77 young people on an island in Norway in 2011. As well as telling Breivik’s terrible story, she gives voices to the victims by interweaving their biographies with his.
Kate Summerscale's The Wicked Boy is out now in hardback.