Best Investigative Journalism Books
Getting lost as you read investigative journalism books is the perfect way to spend a rainy day... or a dark, lonely night. What was that sound?
Just like investigative podcasts, the greatest investigative journalism books of all time have several things in common. For one thing, the stories pull you in and refuse to let you go until you learn the truth. For another, they expose secrets that most people would never imagine. How many of these true crime books have a place on your reading list?
The publication of In Cold Blood didn't launch Truman Capote into fame—he was already infamous by then—but it brought him into mainstream consciousness and forced the non-fiction literary world to take notice of the diminutive, dynamic genius. Easily one of the most well-known investigative journalism books, In Cold Blood focuses on the murders of a Kansas family, the Clutters, who were killed in cold blood in their home. The crime had no outward motive, and behind the scenes, strange events occurred between Capote and the men accused of murdering the Clutters. Supplement the book with several of the movies based on Capote's life and writing, some of the best investigative journalism movies of all time. Perry Smith and Dick Hickock are more menacing on the page than the screen, but the fictionalized and sensationalized accounts are entertaining and illuminating, as long as you view them after you finish the book.
It's hard to pick a single work of investigative non-fiction written by Hunter S. Thompson, the patron saint of gonzo journalism. Most people point to Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. It's an excellent example of the author's gonzo style, and it exposes the cutthroat nature of political campaigns behind the scenes, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of investigative books revolving around Presidential campaigns.
Hell's Angels, however, gives readers an inside view of the violence, loyalty, and love that occurs not just in a motorcycle gang, but the quintessential motorcycle gang. Thompson's book, written in his usual brash, sardonic style, reveals the multifaceted world of the men—and women—who pledge themselves to the open road. Although written in the 1960s, the book is still a revelation. After all, bikers are still largely considered part of the counter-culture, skirting on the edges of the lunatic fringe, tussling with the law.
In 1974, some folks broke into the Watergate Office Complex. Break-ins weren't a rarity in D.C. even in the 70s. What first seemed like just another B&E was something much more sinister. All the President's Men, written by the very men who investigated the break-in that targeted the DNC Headquarters, further chronicles the journey that led Bernstein and Woodward, both Washington Post reporters, to pull the lid off one of the most corrupt presidencies in the history of the United States. That little burglary basically took down the White House. The book is widely considered to be the greatest piece of investigative reporting of all time.
Full disclosure: unlike the other investigative journalism books on this list, The Jungle is actually a fiction book. However, you can trust Upton Sinclair to give you the goods. The man walked the balance between novelist and investigative journalist like few writers can. Though technically fictional, The Jungle is the result of real-life investigations. Sinclair worked his way through the stockyards in Chicago to expose the appalling conditions of the meatpacking plants. The novel revealed everything, and the details about brutal accidents, unsanitary plant conditions, and unfair behavior toward employees were too on-point. Readers instantly realized they were reading a real account set in a fictional novel. Upton's work forced reform across the meatpacking industry, including the institution of the Meat Inspection Act.
The story of Henrietta Lacks is inspiring but horrifying. There's a film based on Henrietta's story and several documentaries, but the best version lies within the pages of Rebecca Skloot's New York Times bestseller. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, we learn how a woman who never even gave consent for it helped to heal the world. The HeLa cell comes from Henrietta Lacks. The HeLa is the immortal cell line. The original cells came from cervical cancer cells inside of Henrietta. Those cells were taken without anyone ever asking or even telling her. Although they're responsible for untold medical breakthroughs, such as the vaccine for polio, the story behind them hurts the heart in ways that few other investigative journalism books can manage.
Eric Schlosser's scathing investigation into the fast food industry and the gap it's created between wealthy elites and working-class poor is savage, ruthless, and relentless. Fast food has changed the world, and not for the better, which is no doubt why the book kick-started the foodie movement of today, as well as the movement's obsession with organic food and locally farmed produce. Investigative journalism doesn't get much better than this, if only because the subject matter never ages. Everything exposed by Schlosser is still relevant now.
Vincent Bugliosi, a prosecutor rather than a journalist, is better known for his book Helter Skelter, a painstaking and intriguing look into the Manson murders and the charismatic, cold-blooded man behind them. And the Sea Will Tell is arguably even more interesting, in no small part because Bugliosi takes on the role of defender. The story of how Jennifer Jenkins—Bugliosi's client—and Buck Walker came to be on a boat belonging to Mac and Muff Graham is a page-turner, all the way up to the end.
Norman Mailer defies description. So does The Executioner's Song. Fans of Mailer's fiction unfailingly complain about the length of the tome, which is one of the longest investigative journalism books out there—but that's why true crime fans love it. It's a meaty, twisted tale told in Norman's signature style, detailing the life and crimes of Gary Gilmore.
Cult enthusiasts shouldn't miss Tim Reiterman's in-depth dive into the history and ministry of Jim Jones, the man who sought to lead his entire “congregation” to “voluntary” death by way of poison-laced Kool-Aid. Throughout the novel, you start to understand how people not only fell for Jim's spiel, but also came to believe in his message actively. To his followers, he wasn't a snake oil salesman, but a messiah. The journey that led to the Jonestown compound and the assassination of a sitting Congressman is twisted, macabre, and unbelievable—but you have no choice to believe it.
Dave Cullen was one of the first reporters on the scene after the tragic shooting at Columbine High School, and is one of the top investigative journalists of all time. He is not the only American journalist to witness brutality firsthand, but he wrote an entire book about one of the country's defining heartbreaks. Questions of gun control, bullying, and school safety have only been shouted louder and louder in the years since Cullen's achingly detailed account of the school shooting that changed everything. Read it, and feel as if you're there. You can almost smell the cordite.
Anyone with a nose for the story and a desire to uncover the entire truth is capable of writing investigative journalism books. As long as you can ask questions, comb through public records, and find out what's going on beneath the surface, you can become another Woodward or Thompson. Ever thought about it? What subject would you expose?
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