5 Fascinating True Crime Books to Read, Recommended by Casey Sherman

Sherman’s latest book, ‘A Murder in Hollywood,’ covers a sensational crime involving actress Lana Turner and the mob. The author discusses the book alongside some of his favorite recent reads.
Casey Sherman.
Casey Sherman. / Paul Marotta/Getty Images for Allied Integrated Marketing (Sherman), Zoran Kolundzija/iStock/Getty Images Plus (Book)

As an investigative journalist and nonfiction author, Casey Sherman has tackled everything from Cape Cod serial killer Tony Costa (Helltown) to the Boston Marathon bombings (Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph Over Tragedy, co-written with Dave Wedge). For his latest book, Sherman set his sights on La-La Land.

A Murder in Hollywood tells the tale of how actress Lana Turner became entangled with the mob, a story that culminates in the killing of her boyfriend, gangster Johnny Stompanato, at her home in Beverly Hills in April 1958. According to the official account of the crime, it was Turner’s 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl, who wielded the knife in defense of her battered mother. But what really happened that night is still shrouded in mystery—even nearly seven decades later.

The cover of ‘A Murder in Hollywood.’
‘A Murder in Hollywood.’ / Sourcebooks

Sherman calls Stompanato’s murder “the biggest Hollywood scandal of the 1950s and early 1960s,” but not everyone is familiar with it today. That might be due to another infamous crime: The Manson Family murders in the summer of 1969, in which followers of Charles Manson killed nine people, including actress Sharon Tate. “That horrific case sucked all of the oxygen out of the room,” Sherman tells Mental Floss via email, “and people forgot what happened in the same town to Johnny Stompanato.”

To tell the story, Sherman went all the way back to the beginning of Turner’s life, covering her father’s murder when she was 9, her being discovered at a Los Angeles soda shop when she was a teen, and the exploitation she and other young actors faced at the hands of the studio system. 

Lana Turner
Lana Turner. / Apic/GettyImages

“Hollywood studios abused their young stars,” Sherman says. “[S]exualized them, starved them, hooked them on drugs so that they could keep cranking out so-called ‘family-friendly’ films.” 

Turner’s story is juxtaposed with the rise of gangster Mickey Cohen, from his birth to immigrant parents in Brooklyn to his reign as a mob boss in Los Angeles with Stompanato as his bodyguard. Sherman, a self-proclaimed “archaeologist of words,” writes in the bibliography of A Murder in Hollywood that “a daunting amount of research went into the writing of this book.” He consulted FBI case files and “a mountain of documents” from the Los Angeles and Beverly Hills Police Departments, read contemporary newspaper reports, and interviewed witnesses off the record. 

The case has been covered extensively—even Sherman found out about it from an article sent to him by his agent—but in his view, no one has gotten it entirely right until now. “I don't think reporters, writers, or journalists ever took the time to determine where all of the puzzle pieces fit,” he says. “With my background as an investigative journalist, I can sometimes see what others cannot or have overlooked.” He says that his book is the first detailed account of an extortion plot against Turner that was dreamt up by Cohen, who deployed Stompanato to seduce Turner and gather material to blackmail her—and ultimately put him on the path to his death.

Stompanato murder, 1958
Johnny Stompanato’s body being removed from Turner’s home. / University of Southern California/GettyImages

“I have always been fascinated by old Hollywood and classic LA crime stories,” Sherman says, “[and] have long admired the works of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler as well as films like The Big Sleep, Chinatown, and LA Confidential. I looked at A Murder in Hollywood as my opportunity to contribute to the canon of hard boiled LA crime stories.”  

The author also wanted to correct the record on Turner, who he sees not as a femme fatale but as “a feminist icon” and a pioneer of the #MeToo movement. “[She] had been battered and abused in both her personal and professional life and finally did what she had to do to take her life back,” he says. “The sordid stories of Harvey Weinstein and other predators did not happen in a vacuum. They were part of a Hollywood culture that dates back to Lana’s time.” 

It was also important to Sherman to “expose the toxic masculinity” of that era along with the double standards that existed in the treatment of men and women actors: “Nobody batted an eye when 27-year-old Ronald Reagan showed up on the red carpet with an underage 16-year-old Lana Turner on his arm,” he says. “Meanwhile, Lana had a morality clause in her MGM contract that basically dictated whom she could be seen with.”

Sherman doesn’t often read true crime, “because as an investigative journalist and author, I live it”—but “if the author can paint a picture of what happened and develop rich multidimensional characters, I am all in.” When choosing the following recent reads (at a bookstore, of course, where he likes to “browse until a title jumps off the shelf and speaks to me”), he scoped out the cover art, read the synopsis, and “hoped to be transported into a world that I knew very little about.”

1. There Will Be Fire: Margaret Thatcher, the IRA and Two Minutes that Changed History // Rory Carroll

“The book chronicles the 1984 assassination attempt [on] British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the hands of the Irish Republican Army. Carroll follows both the bomb makers and the bomb disposal experts in their thrilling and terrifying game of cat and mouse, while also revealing how Thatcher earned the nickname ‘The Iron Lady.’”

2. Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld // T.J English 

“As I examined the mob’s influence on the movie industry in A Murder in Hollywood, T.J English explores the ties between New York's jazz scene and organized crime with real-life characters that leap off the page including Al Capone, Louis Armstrong, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, and Billie Holliday.

“The ecosystems of entertainment and organized crime fed off each other. Like A Murder in Hollywood, Dangerous Rhythms is chock-full of giant personalities on both sides of the ledger. As Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel were strong-arming film studio heads and big movie stars in Hollywood, Lucky Luciano and others were doing the same thing to the jazz greats in New York City.”   

3. Riding with Evil: Taking Down the Notorious Pagan Motorcycle Gang // Ken Croke and Dave Wedge 

“My longtime writing partner Dave Wedge writes about ATF agent Ken Croke and his death-defying infiltration of one of America's deadliest biker gangs. It’s an intense combination of Donnie Brasco and Sons of Anarchy and I was amazed and shocked that Croke got out of it alive.”

4. Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway's Secret Adventures, 1935-1961 // Nicholas Reynolds

“Reynolds, [who worked as a] historian at the CIA Museum, explores the dark side of ‘Papa’ and his secret relationships with the Russian KGB, the FBI, and the CIA. As a longtime admirer of Hemingway’s work, this book was invaluable to me in my understanding of him as a man who had often brokered self-serving friendships with dangerous people during the most tumultuous times of the 20th century.

“I would love to write a book about Hemingway and I have spent a great deal of time studying his personal papers, which are housed at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. I am still fascinated by his lost manuscripts as well as his tumultuous friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. We shall see.” 

5. The Pirate Prince: Discovering the Priceless Treasures of the Sunken Ship Whydah // Barry Clifford 

“The legendary underwater explorer Barry Clifford turns the tables on what we have come to believe about the golden age of piracy. While he recounts his search for the Whydah, the world’s only authenticated pirate ship, Clifford sheds new light the so-called villains of history and casts the majority of pirates as anti-heroes experimenting in democracy on board their ships while the governments of the world were profiting off the slave trade.”