From middle-class teens who enjoy a boldfaced B&E to Hollywood cult leaders, there are as many unbelievable true-crime stories as there are Los Angeles characters. These books will have you glued to every fascinating detail…and wondering if somewhere out there, someone similar is waiting for their criminal star turn. (Good luck ever sleeping again.)
The Bling Ring by Nancy Jo Sales
A story so juicy—and so apropos for our social-media-obsessed times—that Sofia Coppola made it into a movie, this is the story of a group of Valley teenagers who used Facebook, Google maps and TMZ to follow celebrities’ comings and goings so that they could rob them while they were away. Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom and Rachel Bilson were all fleeced for more than $3 million, while the story of the privileged bandits’ celebrity-worship motivation is a cautionary tale for every parent of a Los Angeles youngster.
Room 1219 by Greg Merritt
Allegations of Hollywood sexual misconduct, with media fanning the flames…sound familiar? Lurid criminal accusations in the movie biz dominated news reports in 1921, when the biggest star in Hollywood—comic silent movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle—was accused of the rape and manslaughter of an aspiring actress after a wild party in a hotel room. Film scholar Merritt takes readers back through the rumors and multiple trials that irrevocably changed the still-young film industry.
The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin
Think you know everything about the O.J. case? Not until you’ve read this page-turning account that was the basis for the 2016 FX surprise-hit TV series. (Ross is Robert Kardashian, BTW.) From the white Bronco freeway chase to Simpson’s post-acquittal vow to find his wife’s killer, this is the comprehensive book on a case that polarized Los Angeles and the nation over issues of celebrity, race and domestic violence.
Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi
The ur-Cali true-crime classic first came out in 1974, forever traumatizing generations of readers with the grisly pictures erupting from its pages. Bugliosi served as the lead prosecutor on the case, and his account of the investigation and prosecution of Charles Manson’s cult killings is by turns chilling and fascinating. No wonder it’s the best-selling true-crime book ever.
Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream by Joan Didion
The story of Lucille Miller’s arrest and conviction for burning her husband to death in his Volkswagen in 1964 unfolds like something out of a surreal noir film in this essay by our literary hero. Can’t wait for your collection of Didion essays to arrive? Read it right now online.
Justice: Crimes, Trials, and Punishments by Dominick Dunne
This collection of essays by the late Dunne, a Hollywood insider who chronicled crime among the global moneyed elite for Vanity Fair, is a high-points-of-low-misdeeds sampler that includes chapters on the Menendez brothers, who murdered their affluent parents in Beverly Hills, and the O.J. Simpson trial. There’s also the title essay, which tells the story of the author’s own daughter, Dominique, who was strangled in her West Hollywood driveway by her ex-boyfriend (who served only a few years in prison).
My Dark Places by James Ellroy
Part true crime, part memoir and all heart, this 1997 book traces the author’s attempt to solve the 1958 murder of his mother in the San Gabriel Valley. “If Baudelaire had produced an episode of Dragnet, it might have resembled the feverish, staccato way Ellroy confronts his mother's ghost,” is how Publisher’s Weekly put it. We’re entranced by this darkly personal story told in a craftsman’s voice.
Black Dahlia Avenger by Steve Hodel
In 1947, the mangled body of a young actress was found arranged next to a sidewalk in Leimert Park. The case became known as “the Black Dahlia,” and while it transfixed the city for years, it was never solved. When a retired police detective started investigating the cold case decades later, he found—in a twist too surprising for a Hollywood B-movie—evidence suggesting the murderer was his own father, a high-profile physician (and accused sex offender) who lived in the Sowden House, that Mayan-looking Lloyd Wright-designed home you can spy from the street on Franklin Avenue. It’s un-put-downable.
Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion by Gary Webb
Sometimes the most shiver-inducing crime stories don’t involve isolated madmen or crimes of passion. This book points a finger at the CIA as driving crack cocaine sales in downtown Los Angeles to fund covert Contra fighters in Nicaragua. The meta-story here is heartbreaking: As detailed in the 2014 movie starring Jeremy Renner, Kill the Messenger, after newspaperman Webb published his exposé, he was threatened, professionally discredited and eventually driven to suicide. Conspiracy fantasies or genuine collusion? You be the judge.