Off the Shelf: Murder through the centuries

True stories from any era, well told, will always command reader interest, even if they include violence, theft, kidnapping, and murder.

Historical fiction and true crime are two sections of the library which have always had devoted readers, but the recent rise in popularity of historical true crime is quite phenomenal.

What is the appeal? While there is a general trend in nonfiction toward more “reads like fiction” storytelling, it could simply be that compelling true stories from any era, well told, will always command reader interest, even if they include violence, theft, kidnapping, and murder.

The following are among the best historical true crime titles published in recent years:

Early 19th century/Victorian era

–– The Anatomy Murders: Being the True and Spectacular History of Edinburgh’s Notorious Burke and Hare, and of the Man of Science Who Abetted Them in the Commission of Their Most Heinous Crimes by Lisa Rosner.

William Burke and William Hare murdered 16 people in early 19th century Edinburgh and sold the corpses to local medical schools. Rosner places the sordid story in its historical and social context.

–– The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale.

The author masterfully reveals the details of the murder of three-year-old Saville Kent and his family’s and community’s secrets, along with their distrust of famed London detective James Whicher.

Gilded Age

–– The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins.

In 1897, William Guldensuppe was murdered by his lover, Augusta Nack – a crime made more sensational by Nack’s unorthodox method of disposing of the body (parts) and by the war between New York City’s biggest newspapers to scoop each other.

–– The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson.

The story of the horrific crimes of Gilded Age-era Chicago serial killer H.H. Holmes as well as the creation of the Chicago World’s Fair buildings by famed architect Daniel Burnham. Also available on CD.

Early 20th century and Jazz Age

–– The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry.

The story behind crime journalist Maurine Watkins’ creation of the play Chicago, providing strong character portraits of the unforgettable women who made 1920s Chicago famous for murder.

–– The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

A scientifically grounded history of poisonings, both accidental (most often with alcohol substitutes popular during Prohibition) and intentional.

1930s and 1940s

–– Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French.

In 1937, after the body of young Englishwoman Pamela Werner was found in the shadow of Peking’s Fox Tower, British detective Richard Dennis and Chinese detective Col. Han Shih-Ching set out to learn the truth, but in a tense city waiting to be overrun by the Japanese, answers were hard to find.

–– Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King.

The author’s account of the murderous activities of a Parisian doctor reveals how Marcel Petiot preyed on the desperate in a lawless Paris occupied by the Nazis.

–– Maureen Curry is the chief librarian at the Vernon Branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.


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