Blood and Money (1976), Thomas Thompson. Nothing—not the novel Giant, not LBJ, not even the TV show Dallas—has done more to perpetuate the Texas myth than this finely wrought tale of violence, wealth, and lust. The saga began in 1969, when a raging bacterial infection killed Houston heiress and equestrienne Joan Robinson Hill (a beautiful blonde). Why did her doctor husband (a dark-haired hunk) insist on treating his wife himself? That’s about one percent of the story, and the rest is almost unbelievably, fascinatingly complicated, involving (among a cast of hundreds) a furious father, an unfaithful spouse, tenacious cops, a world-weary prostitute, and an amateur hit man. But its real power lies in its examination of the contrast between—and the commonality of—both high-society folks and unluckier lowlifes.
Blood Will Tell (1979), Gary Cartwright. This true story has everything a Texas mystery needs—rich jerk, tacky mansion, sly lawyers, bullets, blood, and a hot little number with big bazongas. The tale is a twofer, covering both trials of Fort Worth millionaire T. Cullen Davis, who over a period of two years faced charges of both capital murder and solicitation to commit murder (he was, arguably, the richest man ever to be indicted for such serious crimes). Cartwright’s fine writing and reporting balance the National Enquirer—style elements of the story. What’s the outcome? Blood may tell—but I won’t.
Evidence of Love (1983), John Bloom and Jim Atkinson. Americans have had a morbid fascination with ax murderesses since the days of Lizzie Borden. Here is the story of Texas’ Lizzie, Candy Montgomery, a meek housewife and dutiful churchgoer who killed her ex-lover’s wife with 41 whacks. What’s especially creepy is the savagery and suddenness of the attack in the bland, featureless world of suburban Wylie. Lizzie was acquitted; you’ll have to read the book to find out if Candy was too.
Cold Kill (1987), Jack Olsen. Many of the ingredients here are familiar—greedy girl, rich family, malleable beau—but the case itself isn’t especially famous or infamous. But Olsen, a dependable producer of true-crime tomes, has a knack for conveying the shock and consequences of violent death. The story benefits too from the presence of a sexpot investigator, who helped nail the killer and his Lady Macbeth.
The Death Shift (1989), Peter Elkind. The subtitle sums up the story: The True Story of Nurse Genene Jones and the Texas Baby Murders. The death of a fifteen-month-old girl in a Kerrville clinic led to revelations that a nurse who treated her had previously worked in a San Antonio hospital where, during her employment, the pediatric death rate had skyrocketed. An investigation showed that the plain-Jane, unlikable Jones had deliberately injected babies with lethal doses of various drugs to enjoy the attention that was guaranteed to follow. This true-crime book is one not to wallow in but to sorrow over.
Crossed Over (1992), Beverly Lowry. A skilled novelist combines drama and trauma by interweaving the hard-luck story of pickax murderer Karla Faye Tucker with vignettes of a mother’s shock over the death of her son in a hit-and-run accident. The mother in question is Lowry herself, and the back-and-forth between horror and grief is compelling and surprisingly effective. Note to death-penalty activists, pro or con: The story ends long before Tucker’s execution.
Case Closed (1993), Gerald Posner. There are more books about John F. Kennedy’s assassination than there are theories about whodunit, but conspiracy lovers won’t endorse this choice about the Dallas day that will live in infamy. If you’ve always wanted to point a finger—or a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle—at the CIA, the KGB, the Mafia, Fidel Castro, Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes, or anyone else with initials, Posner’s well-reasoned indictment of Lee Harvey Oswald is not for you. Posner may close the case, but he sure opens up some interesting topics for conversations.
Sins of the Son (1995), Carlton Stowers. The author, a longtime Dallasite, is one of the most prolific of Texas true-crime writers. Two of his books—Careless Whispers, about a trio of murders near Lake Waco in 1982, and To the Last Breath, about a father’s 1995 conviction for the suffocation of his infant daughter—won him the Edgar award for best true-crime work. Sins of the Son is particularly poignant, though, because the murderer he writes about is his son Anson, convicted of the brutal killing of his ex-wife (the author’s former daughter-in-law).
Running With Bonnie and Clyde: The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults (1996), John Neal Phillips. The names of the famous Parker-Barrow duo add plenty of sex appeal to the title, but the outlaws themselves are almost secondary characters. The story is so atmospheric and so compelling, however, that you won’t even mind. If you prefer the standard romanticized hooey about the gangster lovers, better skip this book—but be prepared to lose out on a darn good read. Footnoted to a fare-thee-well, the story details a decade in the life of Ralph Fults, a robber and thief who first went up the river at age nineteen. Fults was no angel, but the real demon in his story is the Texas prison system, where the everyday sadism of the guards made Fults’ felonies seem almost wholesome. Though set in the twenties and thirties, Phillips’ book has a lot to say to modern Texans about punishment, pain, and the abuse of power.
Bad Boy From Rosebud (1999), Gary Lavergne. Getting too much sleep? This book will definitely keep you awake at night. It’s the disturbingly detailed story of killer Kenneth McDuff, a human being—barely—who was a walking argument for the death penalty. McDuff committed the “Broomstick Murders” of three teenagers in Tarrant County in 1966. After serving 23 years, he walked out of prison and began killing again, this time in Central Texas, where he targeted young women working or traveling alone. Lavergne has really done his homework and relays the info in a clean, straightforward reportorial style, but gee, he can sure gross you out.