This January felt two years long, and ended with our Criminal-in-Chief giving a State of the Union that would be laughable if it were the television comedy it appears to be and not the actual leader of the free world. As such, and because we’re all feeling a little murderous these days, we’ve asked our editors to share their favorite fiction, poetry, and nonfiction books that deal with crime, criminals, and the criminal justice system.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Drawing upon experiences from his own prison days, Dostoyevsky recounts in feverish, compelling tones the story of Raskolnikov, an impoverished student tormented by his own nihilism, and the struggle between good and evil. Believing that he is above the law, and convinced that humanitarian ends justify vile means, he brutally murders an old woman. Overwhelmed afterwards by feelings of guilt and terror, Raskolnikov confesses to the crime and goes to prison. There he realizes that happiness and redemption can only be achieved through suffering.
Shahid Reads His Own Palm by Reginald Dwayne Betts
Gripping and terrifying, eloquent and heart-wrenching, this debut collection delves into hellish territory: prison life. Soulful poems somberly capture time-bending experiences and the survivalist mentality needed to live a contradiction, confronting both daily torment and one’s illogical fear of freedom.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward—with hope and pain—into the future. Through February 28, purchase a yearly Letters in the Mail subscription or a 6-month Rumpus Book Club subscription and we’ll send you your own signed, hardcover copy of An American Marriage!
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander
The New Jim Crow directly challenges the notion that the election of Barack Obama signals a new era of colorblindness. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” By targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the US criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control—relegating millions to a permanent second-class status—even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.
Apology by Jon Pineda
When nine-year-old Tom Serafino’s twin sister Teagan suffers a debilitating brain injury, a police investigation implicates his playmate Mario’s uncle—an immigrant, transient worker known as Shoe. Innocent of the crime but burdened by his own childhood tragedy, Shoe takes the blame for what is in fact an accident caused by his young nephew, ensuring Mario’s chance at a future publicly unscarred. The lines between innocence and guilt, evasions and half-truths, love and duty are blurred. Can a lie born from resignation, fear, and love transform tragedy into hope? And is the life of one man worth the price of that lie?
The Scamp by Jennifer Pashley
The Scamp confronts head-on the issues of family origins and the bonds between mothers, daughters, and sisters. It delves deep into the cycle of abuse and poverty, questioning, in the end, the value of any one life, child or adult. In Pashley’s hands, the lost girls of rural and industrial America, trapped in the unforgiving systems of government assistance and single parenthood, are portrayed with depth and nuance. She exposes the ingrained poverty and atmosphere of disillusionment that damns them before they have a chance and she gives them a ray of hope for a better life ahead.
Poems from Prison by Etheridge Knight
This collection was written by the author while he was an inmate at the Indiana State Prison; the poems focus on imprisonment as a form of modern slavery and recall in verse his eight-year-long sentence after his arrest for robbery in 1960.
The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Inspired in part by the woman who made history as India’s first female attorney, The Widows of Malabar Hill is a richly wrought story of multicultural 1920s Bombay as well as the debut of a sharp and promising new sleuth. Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Mistry Law has been appointed to execute the will a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen examines the paperwork, she notices something strange: all three of the wives have signed over their full inheritance to a charity. Perveen is suspicious. The Farid widows live in full purdah—in strict seclusion, never leaving the women’s quarters or speaking to any men. Perveen tries to investigate, and realizes her instincts were correct when tensions escalate to murder. Now it is her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that no innocent women or children are in further danger.
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov and translated by David McDuff
The story of a passionate young woman who escapes her stifling marriage through adultery and murder, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is also the basis for the acclaimed film starring Florence Pugh. Nikolai Leskov is one of the most unique voices of nineteenth-century Russia, with a fascination for idiosyncratic characters, lurid crimes, comic absurdity, spirituality and the joy of pure story. This volume contains five of his greatest short tales, including the matchless masterpiece “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”
Berg by Ann Quin
“A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town to kill his father…” This macabre and terrifying novel made a reputation for its Brighton-born author as one of the most original UK writers of her time. Berg is set in the English seaside town of Brighton, which was also where Quin grew up, and her home for most of her life, until her death by suicide in 1973. The novel is written in a kind of internal monologue by Berg/Greb, which mingles description, speech, and thoughts, without clearly distinguishing them, and filtering everything through the central character’s viewpoint. Much of the novel takes place under the influence of alcohol, which adds to its confusing, dream-like atmosphere.
Last Winter We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura
A young writer arrives at a prison to interview a convict. The writer has been commissioned to write a full account of the case, from the bizarre and grisly details of the crime to the nature of the man behind it. The suspect, a world-renowned photographer named Kiharazaka, has a deeply unsettling portfolio—lurking beneath the surface of each photograph is an acutely obsessive fascination with his subject. He stands accused of murdering two women—both burned alive—and will likely face the death penalty. But something isn’t quite right. As the young writer probes further, his doubts about this man as a killer intensify, and he struggles to maintain his sense of reason and justice. Is Kiharazaka truly guilty, or will he die to protect someone else?
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
In this award-winning novel that moves between Haiti in the 1960s and New York in the present day, we meet an unusual man who is harboring a vital, dangerous secret. He is a quiet man, a good father and husband, a fixture in his Brooklyn neighborhood, a landlord and barber with a terrifying scar across his face. As the book unfolds, we enter the lives of those around him, and his secret is slowly revealed. Edwidge Danticat’s brilliant exploration of the “dew breaker”—or torturer—is an unforgettable story of love, remorse, and hope; of personal and political rebellions; and of the compromises we make to move beyond the most intimate brushes with history.
Habeas Corpus by Jill McDonough
Jill McDonough’s first book gives us fifty sonnets, each about a historical execution. Headed meticulously with name, date, place, they are poignant with the factual, with eyewitness reports and the words of the condemned—so limpidly framed that one forgets the skill that crystallizes all this into authentic poetry.
The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo
A masked man with a gun enters a sandwich shop in broad daylight, and Meredith Oliver suddenly finds herself ordered to the filthy floor, where she cowers face to face with her nemesis, Lisa Bellow, the most popular girl in her eighth grade class. The minutes tick by, and Meredith lurches between comforting the sobbing Lisa and imagining her own death. Then the man orders Lisa Bellow to stand and come with him, leaving Meredith behind. After Lisa’s abduction, Meredith spends most days in her room. As the community stages vigils and searches, Claire, Meredith’s mother, is torn between relief that her daughter is alive, and helplessness over her inability to protect or even comfort her child. Her daughter is here, but not. The Fall of Lisa Bellow is edgy and original, a hair-raising exploration of the ripple effects of an unthinkable crime. It is a dark, beautifully rendered, and gripping novel about coping, about coming-of-age, and about forgiveness.
Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
Spademan used to be a garbage man. That was before the dirty bomb hit Times Square, before his wife was killed, and before the city became a blown-out shell of its former self. Now he’s a hitman. In a near-future New York City split between those who are wealthy enough to “tap in” to a sophisticated virtual reality, and those who are left to fend for themselves in the ravaged streets, Spademan chose the streets. When his latest client hires him to kill the daughter of a powerful evangelist, he must navigate between these two worlds—the wasteland reality and the slick fantasy—to finish his job, clear his conscience, and make sure he’s not the one who winds up in the ground.
From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant by Alex Gilvarry
Alex Gilvarry’s widely acclaimed first novel is the story of designer Boy Hernandez: Filipino immigrant, New York glamour junkie, Guantánamo detainee. Locked away indefinitely and accused of being linked to a terrorist plot, Boy prepares for the tribunal of his life with this intimate confession, a dazzling swirl of soirees, runways, and hipster romance that charts one small man’s undying love for New York City and his pursuit of the big American dream—even as the present nightmare of detainment chisels away at his vital wit and chutzpah.
Thief in the Interior by Phillip B. Williams
Phillip B. Williams investigates the dangers of desire, balancing narratives of addiction, murders, and hate crimes with passionate, uncompromising depth. Formal poems entrenched in urban landscapes crack open dialogues of racism and homophobia rampant in our culture. Multitudinous voices explore one’s ability to harm and be harmed, which uniquely juxtaposes the capacity to revel in both experiences.
All Things Violent by Nikki Dolson
Once upon a time, Laura Park was a normal college sophomore with her best friend at her side. A year later, Laura was on a deserted road on the outskirts of Las Vegas killing a man.
She didn’t expect to get away with it but she did with the help of a stranger named Simon who took her in, liquored her up, and broke her down. Soon the ambitious Simon introduces her to Frank Joyce, a man who would teach her how to become a stone-cold professional killer. Laura learns her deadly trade and earns her money. Twenty-six years old and she thinks she’s found her happily ever after. Sadly it all falls apart when Simon leaves her. Now some other woman, blonde and polished, all shiny and new, is living Laura’s happy life. Heartbroken, but knife always at the ready, Laura waits for any opportunity to get Simon back. The question is, when she gets her chance, will she take it?
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area. Three decades later, Michelle McNamara was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” She pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich returns to the territory of her Pulitzer Prize-finalist The Plague of Doves with The Round House, transporting readers to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. It is an exquisitely told story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends and forever transforms his family. Riveting and suspenseful, Erdrich’s The Round House is a page-turning masterpiece of literary fiction—at once a powerful coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a tender, moving novel of family, history, and culture.
Shelter by Jung Yun
Kyung Cho is a young father burdened by a house he can’t afford. For years, he and his wife, Gillian, have lived beyond their means. Now their debts and bad decisions are catching up with them, and Kyung is anxious for his family’s future. A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the town’s most exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by the material comforts that Kyung desires for his wife and son. He can hardly bear to see them now, much less ask for their help. Yet when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, the dynamic suddenly changes, and Kyung is compelled to take them in. For the first time in years, the Chos find themselves living under the same roof. Tensions quickly mount as Kyung’s proximity to his parents forces old feelings of guilt and anger to the surface, along with a terrible and persistent question: how can he ever be a good husband, father, and son when he never knew affection as a child?
Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Don’t Call Us Dead opens with a heartrending sequence that imagines an afterlife for black men shot by police, a place where suspicion, violence, and grief are forgotten and replaced with the safety, love, and longevity they deserved here on earth. Smith turns then to desire, mortality―the dangers experienced in skin and body and blood―and a diagnosis of HIV positive. “Some of us are killed / in pieces,” Smith writes, “some of us all at once.” Don’t Call Us Dead is an astonishing and ambitious collection, one that confronts, praises, and rebukes America―“Dear White America”―where every day is too often a funeral and not often enough a miracle.
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
When it comes to law and order, East Texas plays by its own rules—a fact that Darren Mathews, a black Texas Ranger, knows all too well. Deeply ambivalent about growing up black in the lone star state, he was the first in his family to get as far away from Texas as he could. Until duty called him home. When his allegiance to his roots puts his job in jeopardy, he travels up Highway 59 to the small town of Lark, where two murders—a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman—have stirred up a hornet’s nest of resentment. Darren must solve the crimes—and save himself in the process—before Lark’s long-simmering racial fault lines erupt.
Testify by Simone John
Simone John’s first full-length book of poems, experiments with documentary poetics to uplift stories of black people impacted by state-sanctioned violence. The book’s first section weaves Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in the Trayvon Martin trial with Kendrick Lamar lyrics, fixed form and found poems, and personal artifacts. The second section centers on the audio of the dashboard recording that captured Sandra Bland’s fatal police encounter. Excerpts from this exchange are punctuated with elegies for other dead black women, creating a larger commentary about race and gender-based violence. Testify is ultimately a book of witness. It “burdens” its readers “with knowing.” Combined, both chapters serve as an unflinching critique of race and gender supremacy in the United States.
The Residue Years by Mitchell Jackson
Mitchell S. Jackson grew up black in a neglected neighborhood in America’s whitest city, Portland, Oregon. In the ’90s, those streets and beyond had fallen under the shadow of crack cocaine and its familiar mayhem. In his commanding debut autobiographical novel, Mitchell writes what it was to come of age in that time and place. The Residue Years switches between the perspectives of a young man, Champ, and his mother, Grace. Grace is just out of a drug treatment program, trying to stay clean and get her kids back. Champ is trying to do right by his mom and younger brothers, and dreams of reclaiming the only home he and his family have ever shared. But selling crack is the only sure way he knows to achieve his dream. In this world of few options and little opportunity, where love is your strength and your weakness, this family fights for family and against what tears one apart.