Essential, gripping true crime reads

Recommended by Paul Willetts

Paul Willetts, the critically acclaimed author of King Con and Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms,  is a master of non-fiction storytelling – spinning true-life accounts of con artists, spies and gangsters into gripping stories steeped in detail and atmosphere. 

To prepare you for Paul’s upcoming true crime writing workshop on Saturday 11 September, we asked him which essential true crime reads he would recommend to likeminded readers and writers of non-fiction.

The Case of the Murderous Dr Cream (2021) by Dean Jobb

The Canadian doctor turned serial killing poisoner, Dr Neill Cream, was among the late nineteenth-century’s most notorious criminals, his notoriety spanning both sides of the Atlantic. But he’d drifted into obscurity by the time Dean Jobb began researching this sparely written and brilliantly structured account of his life and monstrous crimes. I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of it, so I wasn’t in the least surprised by its huge critical and commercial success in America.

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova

I don’t usually read books from the pop psychology genre spawned by Malcolm Gladwell. I only read this example of the genre because it came out while I was researching the escapades of a compulsive Jazz Age conman and imposter. He pulled off a series of stings so implausible that I was curious to discover the latest scientific analysis of why we fall for con tricks. As Marina Konnikova (a young psychologist turned staff writer at The New Yorker)reveals, our vulnerability is rooted in our sense of invulnerability, our sense that it’s other people who get conned.

The True Story of Titanic Thompson (2012) by Kevin Cook

I must admit I’d never heard of Titanic Thompson until I picked up this book. He turns out to have been a famous mid-twentieth-century ‘proposition gambler’, who made a fortune by wagering enormous sums of money, usually on his ability to perform some improbable task. One of his most celebrated coups involved betting Al Capone that he could throw a lemon onto the roof of a five-storey building. Read this book and you’ll find yourself with a month’s supply of comic anecdotes.

Years of the Locust (2009) by Jon Hotten

When it was first released more than a decade ago, there was talk of Hotten’s book being turned into a movie. Like so many film projects, though, the mooted film never materialized, which is a shame because this is an immensely cinematic book, written with the swagger and brio of mid-period James Ellroy. It’s set in American South during the 1990s, which plays host to the tragic business relationship between an aspiring champion boxer and his psychopathic manager.

I’ve come across few true-crime books that have such a brilliant opening: ’28 April 1995. So here he comes. Fat Rick Parker, rocking and rolling through Orlando International Airport on this, the last day of his life.’

A Very English Scandal (2016) by John Preston

Entertaining though the TV adaptation was, it’s nowhere near as good as the book, which provides an addictive and blackly amusing account of the plot by the Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, to murder his gay lover, Norman Scott. Never has the clichéd ‘reads like a thriller’ tag been more appropriate. Unsurprisingly, Preston has a parallel career as a novelist, best-known for his fictionalized account of the archaeological discoveries at Sutton Hoo—a novel that has recently spawned a touching and understated Netflix movie.

Midnight in Peking (2011) by Paul French

With this true-crime debut, its Shanghai-based author Paul French established himself as one of the world’s leading true-crime writers. The book chronicles of his re-investigation of a long-forgotten murder of a young English woman living in 1930s Peking. As well as being a murder mystery, it’s a vivid portrait of the vanished world of expats living in British colonial China—a world on the brink of being swept away by the Japanese invasion of that country.  


Don’t miss…

WORKSHOP: TRUE CRIME WRITING WITH PAUL WILLETTS

Saturday 11 September, 10am – 12noon or 2 – 4pm BST, National Centre for Writing, Dragon Hall, Norwich, £35

Join Paul Willetts, the critically acclaimed author of King Con and Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms, for a friendly writing workshop packed with practical tips and advice on how to research, structure and write your non-fiction story.

In this two-hour session, you will explore:

  • How to research your story and use true life details to enhance atmosphere and characterisation
  • Approaches to structuring your story
  • Possible routes to publication, including how to pitch your story to an agent

Whether you are new to the genre or have some writing experience, this workshop offers an essential snapshot of how to approach your non-fiction project.

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