Today I’m excited to welcome Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness with a guest post. When I was soliciting guest posts for Murder, Monsters & Mayhem, Kim asked if posts about non-fiction books was permitted. Of course, I said yes. Truth is oftentimes scarier than fiction. That is the exact topic Kim writes about today; non-fiction that will send a chill through your bones!
The old cliché is that truth is stranger than fiction, which I’ve always thought was true. I also think truth can be scarier than fiction, so when Jenn asked for guests post as part of Murder, Monsters & Mayhem, I couldn’t resist suggesting a post with my favorite scary nonfiction to round out the celebration.
Since some people avoid nonfiction because they think it will be boring or intimidating, I tried to pick book that are so engaging, well-written, and frightening that I hope even a fiction reader would be able to settle into.
For murder, the most obvious choice is Truman Capote’s 1966 “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. In Cold Blood is the true story of the brutal murder of the Cutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. The Cutter’s — husband Herb, wife Bonnie, 16-year-old daughter Nancy, and 15-year-old son Kenyon — were a well-respected and well-liked family in their small community. When they were found murdered in their home, there seemed to be no explanation for the crime. However, a long investigation eventually led police to two felons, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who admit to the senseless killings.
In Cold Blood follows the entire investigation process, piecing together the day of the crime and the days after from the perspective of the investigators and the murderers.Capote is there for the entire process — capture, trial, and eventual execution — and he details those events in with a chilling clarity and eye for detail.
Since the book was published, critics have challenged its authenticity, particularly Capote’s practice to not tape-record interviews and instead rely on memory for quotes and details, but I can’t really speak to those challenges. What I can tell you is that In Cold Blood is a suspenseful and engaging read that is definitely horrifying enough for an October read.
There are a lot of ways to explore monsters in nonfiction, but I found myself drawn to true crime again with The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi. I have to admit that I haven’t actually read this book yet, but I picked it up from the library today and will be settling in to read it as soon as I can.
When journalist Douglas Preston moved his family to a villa in Florence, Italy, he never expected to be drawn into a murder investigation. After meeting a noted Italian journalist, Maro Spezi, Preston learned that the beautiful olive grove next to his home was actually the scene of a brutal double murder committed by the “Monster of Florence,” a serial killer that ritually murdered 14 young lovers. Creepy and monsterous, indeed.
I have to start out every mention of The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum with the disclosure that Deb was one of my professors in grad school, and I admire her as a writer, teacher, and journalist. That said, The Poisoner’s Handbook truly is a great book that I think perfectly represents the idea of mayhem in nonfiction.
The Poisoner’s Handbook is the story of “murder and the birth of forensic science in Jazz Age New York.” The heroes of the story are a bit unlikely: Dr. Charles Norris, Manhattan’s first trained chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, a toxicologist who pioneered the science of detecting poison in the body. During a chaotic time, Norris and Gettler worked to develop the fledgling science of forensic toxicology and their efforts to develop and reform the science of poison detection.
It’s really the setting of the book that reflects “mayhem” to me. Jazz Age New York was a crazy place to live. Bootlegging was just taking off, Tammany Hall basically ran politics, and the U.S. government was actually poisoning alcohol to deter citizens from imbibing. It’s that last part — the willful disregard for life held by certain government officials — that take this story from a good, science-based nonfiction read to a truly great book about a maniacal time in our history.
Kim Ukura is a community newspaper editor by day, and book blogger and self-proclaimed dork by night. When not reading or blogging, Kim enjoys crocheting, watching television, and hanging out with her boyfriend and cat. At Sophisticated Dorkiness, Kim reviews primarily nonfiction, with a sprinkling of literary fiction and graphic novels. Sophisticated Dorkiness was voted Best Nonfiction Book Blog in 2010 and 2011.