In my last post, I discussed True Crime and reflected on my fraught relationship with the genre and its most popular blood-soaked titles. In this post, I’ll talk about some of my recent favorites that showcase the best and worst of humanity while pushing the limits of how “true crime” is usually talked about.
What would you do if you found a million dollars? It sounds like a cliché, but in 1981, it actually happened. Mark Bowden’s Finders Keepers: The Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million (read reviews here) tells the story of Joey Coyle, an unemployed longshoreman who finds a giant bundle of cash sitting in the middle of the street in his south Philadelphia neighborhood. Needless to say, he keeps the money and it’s not long before things turn bad. Bowden’s book goes down easy, as the fantasy scenario grabs your attention, and the writing captures Coyle’s paranoid quest for glory. While it’s a seemingly light topic, the story also has its share of tragedy, in turn addressing addiction and mental illness. The book was adapted into a biographical comedy in 1993. It has its moments and some great Philadelphia scenery, but the book is much better!
Some people don’t sit around waiting to get rich quick. Peter Houlahan’s Norco ‘80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History tells the action-packed account of a heist gone wrong.Perpetrated by a gang of heavily armed doomsday preppers, the robbery escalates into an hours-long shootout and high speed chase, turning the surrounding area into a warzone. More than just a thrilling pursuit, Norco ‘80 is “part caper, part human drama, [and]part cautionary tale”, exploring why Southern California at the time was a hotbed for bank robbery, covering the eventual courtroom drama and increased militarization of police forces who couldn’t subdue such a heavily armed group. In 2021, NPR released an 8-part podcast covering the same story.
Next up is another southern California story. Susan Orlean’s The Library Book investigates the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library, a blaze which burned for seven hours and destroyed or damaged over one million books. Years after reading, I still vividly recall the description of the preservation efforts undertaken by staff after the fire, who acted quickly to box and freeze thousands of volumes, counteracting the water damage. This is sure to be a fascinating read for crime and library enthusiasts, as Orlean examines suspects for the could-be-arson and tells the history of libraries in America and around the globe.
For lovers of books of a more grisly variety is Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin (read reviews here). Rosenbloom travels widely, visiting archives and using new scientific methods to see how many “anthropodermic books” exist. In her search, she discovers fakes and meets resistance from archivists and protestors who believe the books should be buried. Most interestingly, she reckons with a medical and academic community that has a history of seeing patients as less-than-human. It’s sure to appeal to those interested in rare books (explaining why archivists should not wear gloves!) and medical history. This is another title of local interest to me, as the investigation begins and often returns to Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum, home to the largest collection of anthropodermic books in existence.
Cults are a favorite topic for many true crime fans. Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief is a fascinating look at the origins and history of this group. Beginning with the group’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, Wright goes on to cover contemporary church leader David Miscavige, his public battles with the IRS, and the well-known celebrity faces of the religion. Wright claims he didn’t set out to write an expose on the group, but primarily wanted to understand what members get out of their involvement. Through dogged research and interviews, he uncovers the experience of church members subjected to years of unpaid hard labor, physical and psychological abuse, and those who were able to leave. The heartbreaking account of belief and power will especially appeal to readers interested in psychology, Hollywood history, and the power of religious belief.
Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is a memoir that covers Stevenson’s early career as a lawyer spent fighting wrongful convictions, filing appeals for people on death row and battling legislation allowing children to be sentenced to life in prison. He also tells the story of Walter McMillian, a black man who was sentenced to death after being wrongfully convicted for the murder of a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama in 1988. Here, the focus isn’t the details of the alleged crime, but on systemic injustice and how mass incarceration disproportionately affects poor people of color. This devastating look at the broken criminal justice system is as relevant now as when first published in 2014.
Last up is Ben Westhoff’s Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic (read reviews here). This impressive work of investigative journalism explores the mysterious and lawless world of synthetic drugs sold on the dark web. Westhoff shows how chemists are able to stay ahead of laws by altering the chemical structure of fentanyl and other drugs, producing hundreds of variants with unknown effects and risks. The book shifts from the perspectives of the drug producers to small-time dealers, international law enforcement, and families affected by overdose. Likely to appeal to readers of current events, science and economics, the book sheds light on the systemic factors contributing to the opioid epidemic.
I got into true crime like a lot of fans, through sensational ripped-from-the-headlines stories about violent crime. I remain interested in the dark side of humanity but have come to realize that there’s so much more to explore. I think this feeling is gaining steam, as the true crime community seems to be increasingly devoting space to social issues, systemic injustice and stories told from diverse perspectives. I hope I’ve given you some good titles to check out and new avenues to explore. Thanks for reading!
 This book was particularly enjoyable for me because of the setting, as I regularly drive past the scene of the crime. Decades later, that fateful stretch of South Swanson Street where the cash literally fell off of an armored truck(!) is still filled with potholes.
EJI is an organization “committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment…challenging racial and economic injustice, and…protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society” (https://eji.org/about/).