10 Gripping Nonfiction Books About History’s Greatest Mysteries

From human “corpsicles” to cryptic illustrations of naked women on 15th century waterslides, these books about mysteries and baffling phenomena give readers a chance to play detective.

These gripping reads shed new light on the coldest cases.
These gripping reads shed new light on the coldest cases. / Courtesy of Chronicle Books, Grand Central Publishing, and Sourcebooks; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)
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Nothing says, “It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey” quite like delving into a book about a mystery you know hasn’t been completely solved. Readers embark on these twisty rides down trails gone cold not so much like relaxed passengers confident that they’ll arrive at a satisfying place, but like nervous backseat drivers who talk back to the GPS. 

Yet for some reason—whether it’s the seductive possibility of cracking the case ourselves, or perhaps just plain old masochism—we stay buckled in until the bitter end. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of great tomes about some of history’s greatest mysteries. While some of the best nonfiction books might still end with a giant question mark (or at least some major ellipses), they also offer fascinating theories and insights by their authors. 

1. Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar; from $10

Best Nonfiction Books: "Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident" cover pictured
"Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident" by Donnie Eichar / Courtesy Chronicle Books/Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

This especially “cold” case will seem familiar to fans of True Detective and the 2000 pound “corpsicle” at the heart of season four’s crime story. Writer/director Issa López acknowledged being inspired by the strange case of nine elite Russian hikers who died in the Siberian wilderness in 1959. The real-life mystery of the Dyatlov Pass hikers isn’t so much about how they perished—hypothermia was ruled the cause of death in almost all cases (although blunt force trauma was a factor in three of the deaths). Rather, it’s why, because the peculiar details surrounding that night make this one an enduring mystery.

The bodies were found about a mile from their tent, which had been ripped open, and none of these expert hikers were wearing shoes in sub-zero temperatures. Not only that, but one body was wearing two watches while another was missing a tongue, and some of their clothes tested positive for radioactivity. In Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, author Donnie Eichar presents a well-constructed and scientifically plausible theory to explain this head-scratcher of a case which, over the years, has been chalked up to everything from the KGB to “Siberian Demon Dwarves.”

Buy it: Amazon

2. Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste, by Brian Hicks; from $14

Best Nonfiction Books: "Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew" cover.
"Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew" by Brian Hicks / Courtesy Ballantine Books/Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Here’s more good news for True Detective fans who aren’t quite ready to commence their cold turkey withdrawal from season four: Lopez has also cited the Mary Celeste as one of the inspirations for “Night Country.” 

For those not yet totally obsessed with ghost ships, the Mary Celeste was a 100-foot brigantine found in December of 1872 floating aimlessly through the North Atlantic. The undamaged, two-masted vessel was fully stocked (with 1700 barrels of raw alcohol, no less) and completely abandoned, with no trace of the captain, his wife, their 2-year old daughter, or the ship’s crew.

In Ghost Ship, award-winning journalist Brian Hicks digs into the spooky tale and offers his theory as to the baffling disappearance. In an interesting side note, the ghost ship was so intriguing to a young ship’s physician named Arthur Conan Doyle that he reportedly quit his profession and committed himself to creating a fictional detective who solved just about every mind-boggling mystery that ever came his way. We’re pretty sure if the Mary Celeste could talk, she’d say “you’re welcome.”

Buy it: Amazon

3. The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness by John Waller; from $10

Best historical mystery books: "The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness" by John Waller cover
"The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness" by John Waller / Courtesy of Sourcebooks/Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Dancing the night away might seem like a lot of fun, but in reality, it would probably be super exhausting. Now imagine dancing non-stop, involuntarily, for days on end in the sweltering heat until you literally drop dead. That’s the strange and somehow contagious phenomenon that occurred in 1518 in Strasbourg, France.

In this book about the Dancing Plague of 1518, author John Waller paints a picture of a famine-afflicted society that viewed illness as punishment from God and harbored resentment toward corrupt priests and noblemen. Waller posits that these mystical beliefs were what helped drive folks into a wild dance trance that would put even the best wedding DJ to the test. 

Buy it: Amazon 

4. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi; from $11

Best historical mystery books: "The Monster of Florence" by Douglas Preston cover
"The Monster of Florence" by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi / Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing/Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Why can’t young couples looking to carry out their amorous affairs in public (yet secluded) spots seem to catch a break? From the Son of Sam to the Zodiac killer, it seems the same things that make these haunts a perfect place for romance also make them prime spots for murder.  

This isn’t strictly an American phenomenon, either: For proof, look no further than Italy’s “Monster of Florence,” who infamously killed the mood—and an estimated 16 people—in beautiful Florence, Italy, between 1968 and 1985. In this firsthand account, author Douglas Preston is personally drawn into the story when he fulfills his lifelong dream of moving his family to Italy, only to learn that the olive grove outside his family’s 14th century farmhouse was the site of the Monster’s most grisly crime. After Preston reached out to investigative journalist Mario Spezi, the two became so embroiled in the mystery that they each became the targets of police investigations, with Spezi even getting jailed on suspicion of being the Monster himself.

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5. The Truth About the Shroud of Turin: Solving the Mystery by Robert K. Wilcox; from $10

Best historical mystery books: "The Truth About the Shroud of Turin: Solving the Mystery" by Robert K. Wilcox cover
"The Truth About the Shroud of Turin: Solving the Mystery" by Robert K. Wilcox / Courtesy of Salem Books/Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Long before Jesus began turning up on people’s toast and potato chips, there was the Shroud of Turin, a controversial piece of linen bearing the faint image of a man believed to be Christ himself. 

Theories abound as to how this image was created, from low-level radiation [PDF] to medieval hoaxers. In The Truth About the Shroud of Turin: Solving the Mystery, reporter Robert K. Wilcox shares insights from his 30-year quest for answers about this hotly debated artifact, and much of his research is driven by a “thrill of the hunt” prose style that revels in each new discovery.

Although the book is reportedly not for “shroudies” (folks who have made a hobby out of contemplating this cloth), it offers up a comprehensive examination of a relic that some consider proof of the existence of Jesus.

Buy it: Amazon 

6. A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World by Alexander Jones; from $13

History's greatest mysteries: "A Portable Cosmos" book cover
"A Portable Cosmos: Revealing the Antikythera Mechanism, Scientific Wonder of the Ancient World" by Alexander Jones / Courtesy of Oxford University Press/Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

With some of history’s most enduring puzzles, the passage of time doesn’t clarify the mystery so much as make it even more unfathomable. When divers in 1900 recovered the rusted lump of bronze known as the Antikythera mechanism from a shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera, they had no idea they had discovered the world’s first analog computer. (Probably because they didn’t yet know what an “analog computer” was.)

Researchers found that this amazing device was able to simulate the motions of stars and planets and could even predict eclipses and other astronomical phenomena. This level of mechanical ingenuity in a 2000-year-old device was stunningly ahead of its time and suggests a level of sophistication scholars previously did not think possible in ancient Greece. In A Portable Cosmos, renowned Antikythera mechanism expert Alexander Jones discusses the contents of this enigmatic gadget and the light it sheds on civilizations of yore. 

Buy it: Amazon 

7. Set Adrift: A Mystery and a Memoir—My Family's Disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle  by Sarah Conover; $19

Books about historical mysteries: "Set Adrift: A Mystery and a Memoir" cover
"Set Adrift: A Mystery and a Memoir—My Family's Disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle" by Sarah Conover / Courtesy of 55 Fathoms Publishing/Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

For those hooked on family memoirs and unsolved mysteries, this one might just be the perfect literary intersection. The Bermuda Triangle is a section of the North Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of Florida and Puerto Rico in which more than 50 ships and 20 airplanes have inexplicably vanished. In Set Adrift, author Sarah Conover tells the story of her parents and grandparents’ disappearance in the infamous Bermuda Triangle in 1958, an event which left the 18-month-old Sarah and her 3-year-old sister Aileen orphans.

In her recounting, a now-adult Conover investigates the lingering questions around what happened to her family and chronicles the traumatic aftermath for her and her sister, who were the subjects of a contentious custody battle between their maternal grandmother and paternal aunt and uncle. The story has all the heart-wrenching emotional stakes of a memoir, but presented through the lens of that cryptic and terrifying patch of sea.

Buy it: Amazon 

8. Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: The Uncensored Story of the JonBenet Murder and the Grand Jury's Search for the Truth by Lawrence Schiller; from $8

Books about historical mysteries: "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town" by Lawrence Schiller cover
"Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: The Uncensored Story of the JonBenet Murder and the Grand Jury's Search for the Truth" by Lawrence Schiller / Courtesy of HarperCollins/Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

The tragic unsolved murder of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey on Christmas Eve 1996 thrust her affluent family into the public spotlight. The police investigation that ensued kicked off a tabloid media frenzy, but no killer was ever found and the case remains an open investigation with the Boulder, Colorado police department.

Perfect Murder, Perfect Town explores the unanswered questions that still haunt this cold case decades later. Author Lawrence Schiller recreates the events of that horrifying night, and delves into how the Ramseys—who were the central targets of the police investigation—were able to exert so much control over the proceedings. Schiller also pokes all kinds of holes in the official story around JonBenét’s death, from the pen and pad used in the alleged ransom note to whether it would have even been possible for an intruder to break into the home and commit the crime. 

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9. Encephalitis Lethargica: Before and After the Epidemic edited by Joel Vilensky; from $24

History's greatest mysteries: "Encephalitis Lethargica: During and After the Epidemic" cover
"Encephalitis Lethargica: During and After the Epidemic" edited by Joel Vilensky / Courtesy of Oxford University Press/Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

The encephalitis lethargica epidemic that emerged in the late 1910s is said to have affected at least half a million people in Europe by 1930. The condition was puzzling for many reasons, not least of which the fact that its symptoms and prognosis were all over the place. This wide-ranging illness could culminate in a swift death, or cause the sufferer to languish in a coma for months; it could even trigger the total opposite of a coma: insomnia.

Even worse, people could recover from the disease but later relapse into a much more severe, chronic form of the ailment (think of it as “long lethargica”). Eventually, it got to the point where its symptoms included just about everything you could think of. Although the encephalitis lethargica epidemic lasted from around 1916 to 1930, sporadic cases with similar symptoms have been seen in modern times. It’s enough to make a person want to take a nap—or just check out this book detailing the epidemic to wake themselves right up.      

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10. The Voynich Manuscript by Raymond Clemens; from $10

Books about historical mysteries: "The Voynich Manuscript" cover
"The Voynich Manuscript" edited by Raymond Clemens / Courtesy of Yale University Press/Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Books about books might seem needlessly meta, but in this case, it’s really necessary. After all, absolutely no one completely understands the Voynich manuscript, a 15th century handwritten text discovered in 1912 by rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich. The manuscript immediately stood out: Written in an unknown language by an unknown author, the text was accompanied by cryptic illustrations.

To add to the spooky factor, it has popped up throughout history almost as often as Forrest Gump. The parchment has changed hands numerous times; at one point, Holy Emperor Rudolf II acquired it in Prague for 600 gold ducats and is believed to have purchased it directly from the famed astrologer John Dee around 1586.

Now, readers can explore a complete reproduction of this indecipherable text, accompanied by essays that seek to make sense of it all. Perhaps less clarifying—but no doubt equally entertaining—are the featured illustrations of otherworldly plants and naked (and possibly pregnant) women careening down what have been described as “amusement park waterslides from the 15th century.”

Buy it: Amazon

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