True Crime: Books, Podcasts, and Documentaries

With Season 2 of the popular podcast Serial nearing the end of this current season, the FX original limited series, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and the runaway Netflix hit Making a Murderer, our fascination with crime stories doesn’t seem to wane. Maybe the draw is that we want to see justice served, or we want to know if we could spot the true crime in a situation, or maybe it has something to do with the fact that, as one of the lawyers in Making a Murderer says, “We could all say that we’re never going to commit a crime. But we can never guarantee that someone else won’t accuse us of a crime.” Whatever the reason, one thing it does is challenge our worldview.

true crime stories for young adults
CC image via Flickr user Tony Webster


For readers that enjoy a suspenseful or thriller type mystery, true crime can be a great nonfiction option. True crime can also be a great gateway to other narrative nonfiction for readers that don’t see themselves as nonfiction readers; through it they might find themselves spellbound. Here is a list of heart-pounding true crime books and other media.

Borden Murders Cover                  Chasing Lincoln's Killer              hole-in-my-life-cover

The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden & the Trial of the Century by Sarah Elizabeth Miller

One of the most followed crime cases of the late 1800s, Miller reexamines the brutal crime that left Lizzie Borden’s father and step-mother hacked to death with an ax, and why so many thought it was Lizzie’s doing.

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson (2010 Best Books for Young Adults)

Relive the heart-racing account of the twelve-day chase and capture of John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices in this historical thriller.

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos (2003 Printz Honor Book, Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults 2006, 2003 Best Books for Young Adults, 2004 Selected Audiobooks for Young Adults)

Shortly after graduating from high school, Gantos accepted an offer of $10,000 to help sail a boat full of hash from St. Croix to New York, eventually landing him in prison.

no_choirboy             The Nazi Hunters              Spies of the Mississippi

The Nazi Hunters: How A Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb (2014 Award for Excellence in Nonfiction)

What does it take to catch a Nazi war criminal in hiding? Sixteen years after the end of World War II, a team of undercover Israeli agents hunt and capture Adolf Eichmann, who was hiding  in a remote area of Argentina, bringing him to justice.

No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin (2009 Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers and 2009 Best Books for Young Adults)

Examines life in incarceration and the death penalty with in-depth interviews of teenage prisoners convicted of murder and awaiting execution.

Spies of the Mississippi: The True Story of the Spy Network That Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement by Rick Bowers (2011 Finalist for Award for Excellence in Nonfiction)

Documents the activities of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission that compiled secret files on more than 87,000 private citizens with the mission of maintaining white supremacy.

year we disappeared              Can I See Your I.D             Bad Girls

Can I See your I.D.?: True Stories of False Identities by Chris Barton (2012 Nonfiction Award Nomination)

A collection of ten stories of con artists, hoaxers and fugitives living under a false identity either for criminal purposes or for self-preservation.

Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, & Other Female Villains by Jane Yolen

Revisit the lives and legendary misdeeds of 26 notorious women. From Delilah to Calamity Jane to gangster moll Virginia Hill, Bad Girls asks if we would still consider some of these women bad, or just a part of bad circumstances.

The Year We Disappeared: A Father-Daughter Memoir by Cylin Busby

After being shot at close range, a police officer and his family run for their lives leaving everything they know behind. A shocking and unrelenting memoir told by both the officer and his daughter as they recount the year that everything changed.

Lucky                 In Cold Blood                Columbine

Lucky by Alice Sebold (2009 Outstanding Books for the College Bound and Lifelong Learners and 2007 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)

Unflinching memoir of the aftermath of being raped on a college campus, that follows the investigation and prosecution of the author’s attacker, as well as her own struggles dealing with life “after.”

In Cold Blood: A True Account of A Multiple Murder and Its Consequences by Truman Capote (2007 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)

One of the top-selling true crime novels in the U.S. reconstructs a senseless murder of a Kansas farm family. With precision and empathy, Capote follows the crime that shocked a small community through its investigation to the capture, sentencing and execution of the murderers.

Columbine by David Cullen (2010 Alex Award Nomination)

A myth-busting examination of the 1999 Colorado high-school shooting massacre. Through extensive interviews and police reports, explores the big question with no easy answers, “Why did this happen?”


Serial Podcast


By the creators of This American Life, tells an investigative story throughout an entire twelve episode season.


You Must Remember thisYou Must Remember This: Charlie Manson’s Hollywood

This storytelling podcast about the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century. Their twelve-part series “Charlie Manson’s Hollywood” explores the murders committed in the summer of 1969 by followers of Charles Manson and the events leading up to them, and the effects they had bringing the 60’s to an end.

This American LifeThis American Life; The House on Loon Lake

As kids, Adam Beckman and his friends broke into an abandoned house in the 1970s to find everything perfectly preserved, creating a mystery around the family who once lived there but seemed to disappear without a trace. Later as an adult, Beckman returns to find out more about the family, only to discover he is not the only one seeking answers.

True MurderTrue Murder: The Most Shocking Killers in True Crime History and the Authors That Have Written About Them

Host Dan Zupansky interviews authors that have written about the most shocking killers of all time in this weekly series.


Stories about people who have done crimes or had crimes done to them and everything crime-y in between.


sword and scaleSword and Scale

True crime narratives that seeks to explore the human elements of some of the greatest horrors of our time.


Documentaries and Miniseries:

making-a-murderer              The Jinx             Capturing_the_Friedmans

Making a Murderer

This ten-part Netflix original series follows Steven Avery, a DNA exoneree. While trying to expose inept and corrupt local law enforcement, finds himself accused of a new crime.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

This six-part HBO original series examines New York real estate mogul Robert Durst, who is at the heart of three killings spanning four decades.

Capturing the Friedmans

2003 Documentary about a father and son, who seemingly typical, are  then charged with a series of horrible and shocking crimes.

The-Central-Park-Five-poster                West of Memphis             the imposter

The Central Park Five

Filmmaker Ken Burns chronicles The Central Park Jogger case through the perspective of the five black and Latino teenagers from Harlem who were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989.

West of Memphis

With dubious lack of proof, three nonconformist teenage boys are convicted of horrendous murders. Evidence surrounding the murders is exposed showing the wrongful conviction of three boys who lost eighteen years of their lives imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

Also see the 1996 documentary about the case Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.

The Imposter

After disappearing without a trace in 1994, a thirteen-year-old boy is found three-and-a-half years later, thousands of miles away in Europe. The boy tells a story of kidnap and torture when he returns, but everything  is not as it seems. Is this the the boy that disappeared or an imposter?

— Danielle Jones, currently reading Unbecoming by Jenny Downham