Narrative Nonfiction to Rival Any Great Thriller Novel
Who doesn’t love a good thriller or true crime story? Whether a tale of murder and mayhem, a page-turning whodunit, dangerous family secrets, or a bit of good old-fashioned espionage – there’s nothing quite like a great page-turner. Occasionally, however, life can prove stranger – and more thrilling – than fiction. Some of the best thrillers just happen to lurk in the pages of the nonfiction world. What better way to change up your usual suspenseful binge than to dive into the pages of a larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction tale? Here are a few of our favorites.
For millennia the location of the Nile River’s headwaters was shrouded in mystery. In the 19th century, there was a frenzy of interest in ancient Egypt. Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke were sent by the Royal Geographical Society to claim the prize for England. Yet there was a third man, his name obscured by imperial annals. This was Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who was enslaved and shipped from his home village in East Africa to India. When the man who purchased him died, he made his way back and used his resourcefulness, linguistic prowess, and raw courage to forge a living as a guide.
In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.” The target in their sights was Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who talked her way into Special Operations Executive, the spy organization dubbed Winston Churchill’s “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” She became the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines and–despite her prosthetic leg–helped to light the flame of the French Resistance, revolutionizing secret warfare as we know it. A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman’s fierce persistence helped win the war.
Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream. After World War II, Don’s work with the Air Force brought them to Colorado, where their twelve children perfectly spanned the baby boom: the oldest born in 1945, the youngest in 1965. In those years, there was an established script for a family like the Galvins–aspiration, hard work, upward mobility, domestic harmony–and they worked hard to play their parts. But behind the scenes was a different story: psychological breakdown, sudden shocking violence, hidden abuse. By the mid-1970s, six of the ten Galvin boys, one after another, were diagnosed as schizophrenic. How could all this happen to one family?
In Campfire Stories: Narrow Escapes & More Close Calls, storytellers take us from Florida to the Northern Rockies to the Arctic Ocean with wild and true stories, a reminder that the natural world is rugged and unpredictable. Including stories from MeatEater’s Steven Rinella and Clay Newcomb, and spearfishing champion Kimi Werner, this immersive audio collection also features tales from listeners who survived falling through the ice, gunshot and arrowhead wounds, hand-to-hoof combat with a deer, and a spearfisherman who made the best shot of his life to save a friend from certain death.
A memoir of growing up with blind, African-American parents in a segregated cult preaching the imminent end of the world. When The World in Flames begins, in 1970, Jerry Walker is six years old. His consciousness revolves around being a member of a church whose beliefs he finds not only confusing but terrifying. Composed of a hodgepodge of requirements and restrictions (including a prohibition against doctors and hospitals), the underpinning tenet of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God was that its members were divinely chosen and all others would soon perish in rivers of flames.
In the last decade, more than 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared in the Mexican drug war, and drug trafficking there is a multibillion-dollar business. In a country where the powerful are rarely scrutinized, noted Mexican-American journalist Alfredo Corchado refuses to shrink from reporting on government corruption, murders in Juárez, or the ruthless drug cartels of Mexico. One night, Corchado received a tip that he could be the next target of the Zetas, a violent paramilitary group—and that he had twenty-four hours to find out if the threat was true. Midnight in Mexico is the story of one man’s quest to report the truth about his country — as he races to save his own life.
When a two-month-old baby falls ill, his apparently ordinary symptoms turn out to signal a rare and lethal immune deficiency. For parents Miguel Sancho and Felicia Morton, the discovery that their son, Sebastian, has chronic granulomatous disease (CGD) upends their lives and leaves the family with few options, all of them terrifying. Sancho’s riveting tale of the diagnosis and treatment of his son’s illness takes us deep inside the workings of the immune system, and into the radically innovative treatment used to repair it.
A grand, devastating portrait of three generations of the Sackler family, famed for their philanthropy, whose fortune was built by Valium and whose reputation was destroyed by OxyContin, by the prize-winning, bestselling author of SayNothing.
On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner the Lusitania as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters.
In an America torn apart by the Vietnam War and the demise of ’60s idealism, airplane hijackings were astonishingly routine. Over a five-year period starting in 1968, the desperate and disillusioned seized commercial jets nearly once a week, using guns, bombs, and jars of acid. Their criminal exploits mesmerized the country, never more so than when shattered Army veteran Roger Holder and mischievous party girl Cathy Kerkow managed to commandeer Western Airlines Flight 701 and flee across an ocean with a half-million dollars in ransom — a heist that remains the longest-distance hijacking in American history.
In this gripping narrative, Ben Macintyre tackles one of the most famous prison stories in history and makes it utterly his own. During World War II, the German army used the towering Colditz Castle to hold the most defiant Allied prisoners. For four years, these prisoners of the castle tested its walls and its guards with ingenious escape attempts that would become legend. Prisoners of the Castle traces the war’s arc from within Colditz’s stone walls, where the stakes rose as Hitler’s war machine faltered and the men feared that liberation would not come soon enough to spare them a grisly fate at the hands of the Nazis.
In this haunting and riveting firsthand account, a survivor of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple opens up the shadowy world of cults and shows how anyone can fall under their spell. A high-level member of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple for seven years, Deborah Layton escaped his infamous commune in the Guyanese jungle, leaving behind her mother, her older brother, and many friends. She returned to the United States with warnings of impending disaster, but her pleas for help fell on skeptical ears, and shortly thereafter, in November 1978, the Jonestown massacre shocked the world. Seductive Poison is both an unflinching historical document and a suspenseful story of intrigue, power, and murder.
Charles Sobhraj remains one of the world’s great conmen, and as a serial killer, the story of his life and capture endures as legend. Born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and Indian father, Sobhraj grew up deprived of a sense of identity, moving to France before being imprisoned and stripped of his multiple nationalities. Driven to floating from country to country, continent to continent, he became the consummate con artist, stealing passports, and smuggling drugs and guns across Asia. On the Trail of the Serpent draws its readers into the story of Sobhraj’s life as told exclusively to journalists Richard Neville and Julie Clarke by the investigators, families of the victims, and even Sobhraj himself.
On April 20th, 1989, two passersby discovered the body of the “Central Park jogger” crumpled in a ravine. Within days five black and Latino teenagers were apprehended, all five confessing to the crime. Over a decade later, when DNA tests connected serial rapist Matias Reyes to the crime, the government, law enforcement, social institutions, and media of New York were exposed as having undermined the individuals they were designed to protect. Here, Sarah Burns recounts this historic case for the first time since the young men’s convictions were overturned, telling the full story of one of New York’s most legendary crimes.
For years, reporters had tried to get to the truth about Harvey Weinstein’s treatment of women. Rumors of wrongdoing had long circulated, and in 2017, when Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey began their investigation for the New York Times, his name was still synonymous with power. In the tradition of great investigative journalism, She Said tells a thrilling story about the power of truth and reveals the inspiring and affecting journeys of the women who spoke up — for the sake of other women, for future generations, and for themselves.
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship — and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
With a thrilling, fast-paced narrative, award-winning journalist Douglas Perry vividly captures the sensationalized circus atmosphere that gave rise to the concept of the celebrity criminal- and gave Chicago its most famous story. The Girls of Murder City recounts two scandalous, sex-fueled murder cases and how an intrepid “girl reporter” named Maurine Watkins turned the beautiful, media-savvy suspects, “Stylish Belva” and “Beautiful Beulah,” into the talk of the town.
Nadia Murad was born and raised in Kocho, a small village of farmers and shepherds in northern Iraq. A member of the Yazidi community, she and her brothers and sisters lived a quiet life. On August 15th, 2014, when Nadia was just twenty-one years old, this life ended. Islamic State militants massacred the people of her village, executing men who refused to convert to Islam and women too old to become sex slaves. Today, Nadia’s story — as a witness to the Islamic State’s brutality, a survivor of rape, a refugee, a Yazidi — has forced the world to pay attention to an ongoing genocide.
In 1958 Jean Ellroy was murdered, her body dumped on a roadway in a seedy L.A. suburb. Her killer was never found, and the police dismissed her as a casualty of a cheap Saturday night. James Ellroy was ten when his mother died, and he spent the next thirty-six years running from her ghost and attempting to exorcize it through crime fiction. In My Dark Places, our most uncompromising crime writer tells what happened when he teamed up with a brilliant homicide cop to investigate a murder that everyone else had forgotten, and reclaim the mother he had despised, and desired, but never dared to love. What ensues is an epic of loss, fixation, and redemption, a memoir that is also a history of the American way of violence.
There are few remaining frontiers on our planet. But perhaps the wildest, and least understood, are the world’s oceans: too big to police, and under no clear international authority, these immense regions of treacherous water play host to rampant criminality and exploitation. Traffickers and smugglers, pirates and mercenaries, wreck thieves and repo men, vigilante conservationists and elusive poachers, seabound abortion providers, clandestine oil dumpers, shackled slaves and cast-adrift stowaways — drawing on five years of perilous and intrepid reporting, often hundreds of miles from shore, Ian Urbina introduces us to the inhabitants of this hidden world.
What are the origins of the hostile environment for immigrants in Britain? Drawing on new archival material from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ian Sanjay Patel retells Britain’s recent history in an often shocking account of state racism that still resonates today. In a series of post-war immigration laws, Britain’s colonial and Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa were renamed immigrants. Combining voices of so-called immigrants trying to make a home in Britain and the politicians, diplomats and commentators who were rethinking the nation, Ian Sanjay Patel excavates the reasons why Britain failed to create a post-imperial national identity.
In the early 2000s, Adrian Hong was a soft-spoken Yale undergraduate looking for his place in the world. After reading a harrowing account of life inside North Korea, he realized he had found a cause so pressing that he was ready to devote his life to it. In the tradition of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, The Rebel and the Kingdom is an exhilarating account of a man who turns his back on the status quo — to instead live boldly by his principles. Acclaimed journalist Bradley Hope, who broke numerous details of Hong’s operations in The Wall Street Journal, now reveals the full contours of this remarkable story of idealism and insanity, hubris and heroism.
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe. Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. One of her relatives was shot. Another was poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more Osage were dying under mysterious circumstances, and many of those who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered.
On December 6, 1991, the bodies of four girls, each one shot in the head, were found in a frozen yogurt shop in Austin, Texas. Grief, shock, and horror overtook the city. But after eight years of misdirected investigations, only two suspects (teenagers at the time of the crime) were tried; their convictions were later overturned and detectives are still working on what is now a very cold case. The story has grown to include DNA technology, coerced false confessions, and other developments in crime and punishment. But this story belongs to the scores of people involved, and from them, Beverly Lowry has fashioned a riveting saga that reads like a novel, heart-stopping and thoroughly engrossing.
On April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 264 others. In the ensuing manhunt, Tamerlan Tsarnaev died, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was captured and brought to trial. Yet even after the guilty verdict and the death sentence, what we didn’t know was why. Why did the American Dream go so wrong for two immigrants? How did such a nightmare come to pass?
In the summer of 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) were seen spending lavishly around the docklands of East London. The boys told neighbors they had been left home alone while their mother visited family in Liverpool, but their aunt was suspicious. When she eventually forced the brothers to open the house to her, she found the badly decomposed body of their mother in a bedroom upstairs. Robert and Nattie were arrested for matricide and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. With riveting detail and rich atmosphere, Kate Summerscale recreates this terrible crime and its aftermath, uncovering an extraordinary story of man’s capacity to overcome the past.
Based on years of on-the-ground reporting, The Daughters of Kobani is the unforgettable story of the women of the Kurdish militia that improbably became part of the world’s best hope for stopping ISIS in Syria. Rigorously reported and powerfully told, The Daughters of Kobani shines a light on a group of women intent on not only defeating the Islamic State on the battlefield but also changing women’s lives in their corner of the Middle East and beyond.
Whether he is handling pythons in Alabama or searching for hibernating bats in the Adirondacks, Zimmer revels in astounding examples of life at its most bizarre. He tries his own hand at evolving life in a test tube with unnerving results. Charting the obsession with Dr. Frankenstein’s monster and how Coleridge came to believe the whole universe was alive, Zimmer leads us all the way into the labs and minds of researchers working on engineering life from the ground up.