If you’re a mystery reader, you’ve probably heard of the Edgar Awards, which are awarded annually by the Mystery Writers of America. Books that get Edgar nominations have been vetted and are often (not always; I hit a clunker which was an Edgar nominee not long ago) well worth reading. You’re probably aware that there are awards for Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best First Novel, Best Y. A. Novel and the like, but are you aware that the Mystery Writers of America also award Edgars for nonfiction that’s crime related? And are you aware that five of the nominees for Best Fact Crime books are available right here at the Field Library? If you want to get a hint of what mystery writers consider to be the best nonfiction in their field, you should come on in to The Field Library and check these out. The winners in all categories will be announced on April 28.
The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History, by Margalit Fox, is one of those books you probably wouldn’t believe if it were fiction, which makes it a terrific subject for nonfiction. During World War II, two British officers imprisoned in a remote Turkish camp figured out a way to bamboozle their captors and ultimately escape the prison using a ouija board, fake seances and a healthy dose of psychology. What makes this wild story even better is that the two officers in question were utterly different in background and personality, one a sheep farmer from Australia and the other a son of a lord, educated in Oxford. Nothing short of their shared experience in this hellish camp could have brought them together, let alone got a lawyer and a magician to combine their talents in a brilliant con like this. The book also made various “Best of the year” lists in 2021.
Turning to the more recent past, there’s Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust and Murder in Queer New York, by Elon Green, which is the story of the Last Call Killer, a serial killer who stalked the New York City gay community in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but, because he only preyed on gay men, and did so when the murder rate in general was extraordinarily high and the death rate among gay men from AIDS was also high, hardly anyone has even heard of him and his crime spree. Whether you think serial killers are given too much publicity and attention in general or you’re fascinated by them, the story of a community preyed on by a serial killer without the wider world’s so much as noticing has to be intriguing. The book investigates the murders and the decades long efforts to bring the killer to justice, but also focuses on the community he victimized, bringing it and its resilient denizens to life.
If you’re more interested in spies and the Cold War, or perhaps are a fan of the television series, The Americans, you’ll want to check out Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America who Got Away, by Ann Hagedorn, also nominated for an Edgar. It tells the incredible story of George Koval, an American born to emigrees from the Soviet Union who was recruited by the KGB and ended up working on the Manhattan Project, both in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Dayton, Ohio (where the polonium was assembled into triggers for the atomic bombs). He had security clearances and access to some of the most top secret aspects of our atomic program, which he fed back to the Soviet Union. Even after some of his contacts were exposed after the war, nobody suspected him, and he ended up back in the Soviet Union, never having been caught or charged with espionage. An eye-opener of a look at how someone was able to infiltrate our most secret programs without raising an eyebrow.
The subtitle of Two Truths and A Lie: A Murder, a Private Investigator and Her Search for Justice, by Ellen McGarrahan, makes the book sound like your classic thriller, but sometimes truth is stranger and more interesting than fiction could be. McGarrahan witnessed the execution of a man for the murder of two police officers, but began to believe that he might have been innocent of the crime, as his co-defendant and supposed partner was released from jail and someone else confessed to the crime. Haunted by the question, she used her skills as a private investigator to dig into this case for years, trying to get at the truth of the matter, only to discover that truth is slipperier than she ever believed. More than just your usual true crime story of the crime and the investigation into the criminals, the book shows the emotional cost of delving into the heart of darkness like this.
Murder is a terrible thing at any time, but when it’s done by groups of people with what they believe is social approval, it’s worse. When Evil Lived in Laurel: the “White Knights” and the Murder of Vernon Dahmer, by Curtis Wilkie, deals with a particularly violent subgroup of the KKK in south Mississippi and its murder of a young black man who was president of the local chapter of the NAACP an an outspoken advocate for voting rights for African Americans. At the time, Tom Landrum joined the Klan as an FBI informant, risking his life as he climbed higher and higher into the inner circles of the organization, taking copious notes about the group’s planning of the murder. Those insider notes give Wilkie primary sources for the vivid and detailed portrait of the early period of the Civil Rights movement, and of the KKK in its most heinous and powerful period.
If you’re interested in crime, whether institutionalized by the KKK or high level crimes against the United States, and you want to sample some of the best nonfiction writing on the broad subject, check out these books from The Field Library.