I Feel the Need: 9 Compelling True Crime Reads About Obsessions


Liberty Hardy is an unrepentant velocireader, writer, bitey mad lady, and tattoo canvas. Turn-ons include books, books and books. Her favorite exclamation is “Holy cats!” Liberty reads more than should be legal, sleeps very little, frequently writes on her belly with Sharpie markers, and when she dies, she’s leaving her body to library science. Until then, she lives with her three cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, in Maine. She is also right behind you. Just kidding! She’s too busy reading.

Twitter: @MissLiberty

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Best known for inspiring the great artists of France, absinthe became especially illustrious after being banned globally in 1914. With pre-ban absinthe coveted by collectors, enter the grifter who charmed some of the best palates in the beverage world with almost undetectable fakes. Journalist Evan Rail pursues the Absinthe Forger deep into the modern absinthe underground — whose members are still frantic to find the last remaining pre-ban bottles — and visits modern producers of the spirit, who have, in a generation, changed in status from daring-criminal bootleggers to sought-after celebrities.

What is a thing in your life you would call your passion? Dancing? Reading? Collecting things like stamps and baseball cards? Perhaps it’s a television show, or a quest to qualify for the Olympics, or a thirst for knowledge. These are things that bring you happiness and perhaps even a career. Now, imagine you were consumed with thoughts of these things. Say you have a hobby that you love so much that you will stop at nothing to keep doing it — including committing crimes. Now you don’t have a passion, you have an obsession. That is what drives the stories in nine compelling true crime reads about obsessions listed below. Sometimes, the authors are the ones obsessing, and sometimes, it’s the subjects they write about. These are people whose lives were taken over with a need for…something. And these tales are wild.

There are not one, but TWO stories of crimes involving people who committed bird-related thefts; a quest to find a rare orchid in the wilds of Florida; an account of two men driven to document every word; a jewel thief who couldn’t stop stealing; a Harvard student compelling to solve a woman’s decades-old murder; the world’s most prolific art thief; and much more! Please note that true crime books being published remain largely authored by white people, so if you know of any great true crime books about obsession written by people of color, let us know! Now buckle in, readers: It’s time for crime.

cover of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett; photo of a bookcase, with the shadow of a person wearing a hat falling across itcover of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett; photo of a bookcase, with the shadow of a person wearing a hat falling across it

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Someone can love books too much? It’s not possible, you say! But when it leads to a life of crime, it is true. John Charles Gilkey felt such a need to own rare books, he became one of the most prolific book burglars in the country. It took an equally driven detective to hunt him down and put an end to (sorry not sorry) that chapter in his life.

cover of We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper; red-tinted image of a young woman cover of We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper; red-tinted image of a young woman

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper

Becky Cooper was a student at Harvard when she heard a story that shocked her. Decades earlier, a woman student had been murdered, and while the case was never solved, it was said that the killer was a professor still teaching at the school to that day. Cooper couldn’t believe it — how could a killer still be walking around among students? Why hadn’t he been arrested? Her interest in the murder turned into a drive for answers that took over her life for ten years, leading her down dark paths of sexism, jealousy, and violence in Harvard’s Anthropology Department.

cover of The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel; painting of a bat across top half and a young child sleeping in grass across bottom halfcover of The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel; painting of a bat across top half and a young child sleeping in grass across bottom half

The Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession by Michael Finkel

Art thefts have been happening for almost as long as people have been making art. Big jobs like the (still unsolved) Gardner Museum heist and the (temporary) loss of the Mona Lisa captivated the world. But there was one man who didn’t always make headlines but did make off with over 300 works of art across Europe over an eight-year span. Stéphane Breitwieser is considered the world’s most prolific art thief — and the most successful — until his need to keep stealing, despite the writing on the wall, led to his capture.

cover of The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird by Joshua Hammer; painting of a white falcon against blue mountainscover of The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird by Joshua Hammer; painting of a white falcon against blue mountains

The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird by Joshua Hammer

Like many of the books on this list, this is a story about not only the criminal but the person determined to catch them. If there is something that exists, anything, you can bet there is someone in the world who has an interest in whatever it is. In this case, it was rare birds whose eggs were being stolen, smuggled, and sold for millions. Detective Andy McWilliam of the United Kingdom’s National Wildlife Crime Unit pursued a thief around the globe (like a hawk) to put a stop to his thieving.

cover of The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk W. Johnson; pile of blue feathers with typed title card resting against themcover of The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk W. Johnson; pile of blue feathers with typed title card resting against them

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson

And speaking of birds, this weird true crime tale involves their feathers. Kirk Johnson was fly fishing when he was told a wild story by his guide. There was an American orchestral musician on tour in England who broke into a natural history museum to steal hundreds of old bird skins. Why? To use the feathers to make old-fashioned Victorian ties for fly fishing, which was his obsession. That was all the guide knew about the theft. But Johnson became so captivated by this tale and determined to find out what happened to the musician and the skins he stole that he wound up investigating it himself.

cover of The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean; illustration of orange petals of a flower on side of blue cover with yellow fontcover of The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean; illustration of orange petals of a flower on side of blue cover with yellow font

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean

One of journalist Susan Orlean’s earliest books recounts her experience traveling to Florida to meet with an unusual criminal. John Laroche was an orchid thief, determined to find, steal, and clone the rare ghost orchid from the Florida swamps. Which, like hunting endangered animals, was illegal. He took Orlean on a wild ride through the criminal underworld of flower collecting, the untamed nature of the flower’s natural habitat, and his own life. (This was later very loosely adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage called Adaptation.)

cover of Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World's Most Notorious Jewel Thief by Doris Payne; photo of Black woman in white fur coat, white fur hat, and sunglassescover of Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World's Most Notorious Jewel Thief by Doris Payne; photo of Black woman in white fur coat, white fur hat, and sunglasses

Diamond Doris: True Story of the World’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief by Doris Payne

This is the only memoir on the list. In her own words, Doris Payne describes her decades as a jewel thief. Starting when she was young, Payne was determined to rise out of her situation as a poor Black girl during the Depression. Her life of crime started when she was kicked out of a jewelry store by a racist owner, and she discovered she had a knack for boosting gems. Over six decades, she stole from all over the world, fencing the jewels for profit and even selling some to Hollywood celebrities. Even more amazing, Payne was suspected or arrested multiple times in her career and had more than one prison break to her name. She was caught stealing as recently as 2015 when she was 84!

The Dinosaur Artist cover imageThe Dinosaur Artist cover image

The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy by Paige Williams

Like falcon eggs, diamonds, orchids, and artwork, possessing a dinosaur bone is something many collectors would like to do despite the legality of owning one. In this case, it was a whole skeleton, stolen from Mongolia by a fossil hunter from Florida. He made his living finding bones and selling them to museums, rich people, and celebrities, who would pay top dollar. But his brazen theft of a whole skeleton and the ensuing custody battle is what finally brought his enterprise crashing to the ground.

cover of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester; sepia-toned photo of man with long white beard holding a book over image of an open dictionarycover of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester; sepia-toned photo of man with long white beard holding a book over image of an open dictionary

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

And last, but not least, what is considered a recent classic of true crime. In the 18th century, Professor James Murray, a lexicographer, began his fervent dream of documenting every word in English and their definitions. This incredible lofty goal was to become the OED — the Oxford English Dictionary. One of the OED’s most passionate contributors was a man named Dr. W. C. Minor, who submitted over one thousand entries by mail. Murray knew that Minor was almost as invested in seeing the book completed as he was. But what Murray didn’t know about his helpful pen pal was that Minor was also a convicted murderer being held at a facility for the criminally insane.

For more books on obsession, check out these books about obsessive friendships. And if you enjoy thrillers, be sure to sign up for our mystery newsletter, Unusual Suspects, and listen to our mystery podcast, Read or Dead!





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