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updated 7/29/2011 12:05:54 PM ET 2011-07-29T16:05:54

This week marks the grim 35th anniversary of the killing spree of David Berkowitz, a harrowing chapter in American history that left six dead, seven wounded and the entirety of New York City paralyzed with fear.

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The mysterious story of the man initially dubbed the “The 44 Caliber Killer” by the media before he ominously declared himself “The Son of Sam” in one of the many cryptic letters he left for the police was rife with bizarre details that transfixed the public. Many speculated that after Berkowitz’s arrest in August 1977 (during the same brutal summer in which an economically endangered New York City was rocked by a crippling blackout), a book revealing the serial killer’s story would be in high — and extremely lucrative — demand.

But no such book was ever published, thanks to what became known as the “Son of Sam law.” It not only prohibited convicted felons from making crime pay by soliciting their stories to publishers; it also stipulated that any profits they did earn be seized by the state and given to their victims as remuneration.

But that didn’t prevent others from attempting to tell Berkowitz’s horrific tale. There have been volumes devoted to the morbid subject, most notably storied New York journalist Jimmy Breslin and Dick Schaap’s “.44.”

The compulsion to understand the motives and methods of the criminal mind has inspired countless authors, spawning the hugely popular genre known as true crime. While the subject matter is often disturbing — if not entirely unthinkable — here are five examples of the genre at its grittiest.

‘In Cold Blood’
By Truman Capote
(Random House)
The cornerstone of the true-crime genre set a template for other writers to follow, though not without causing a few personal pitfalls for the author himself. Novelist Truman Capote immersed himself in the investigation of a brutal quadruple murder that took place in rural Kansas in 1959, devoting six years to intense involvement with both the victims’ family and the perpetrators. The result was a gripping and graphic account of a grisly crime that read like a fluidly composed novel. In the wake of the sensational success of “In Cold Blood,” Capote’s depiction of events became the subject of scrutiny and speculation, spurring rumors that he’d forged too close a rapport with one of the convicted killers. The book was adapted into a 1967 movie and a 1996 TV miniseries, and the story of its writing inspired the critically acclaimed “Capote” in 2005 and “Infamous” in 2006.

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‘Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders’
By Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry
(W.W. Norton & Company)
Helmed by the prosecuting attorney in one of the most notorious trials in American history, Vincent Bugliosi’s book (co-authored by writer Curt Gentry) provided perspective into the bizarre and bloodthirsty actions of the Manson family, a murderous collective of wayward hippies led astray by enigmatic drifter, aspiring musician and hypnotic con man, Charles Manson. In the summer of 1969, Manson instructed various members of his cult-like commune to carry out heinous murders, fueled by his own apocalyptic conspiracy theories. In riveting detail, Bugliosi and Gentry document the ill-fated trajectories of each member of the Family and their respective, unspeakable actions (though the crime-scene photography appended to the text edits out the bodies, the images are still disturbing), as well as their surreal antics at the ensuing trial. Four decades after the fact, “Helter Skelter” remains a frightening read.

‘A Stolen Life’
By Jacee Dugard
(Simon & Schuster)
Documenting one of the more disquieting cases in recent history, Jaycee Dugard’s bracingly candid memoir provides a first-person account of her 18 years in captivity at the hands of convicted sex offender Phillip Garrido. The book covers Dugard’s ordeal from the moment of her abduction, including her regimen of daily rape and torment, the births of two children fathered by Garrido, his arrest, and her eventual reunion with her family. As harrowing as Dugard’s story is, the book, released just this month, has already gone back to press five times.

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‘The Westies: Inside New York’s Irish Mob’
By T.J. English
(St. Martin’s Griffin)
Today, Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen is an up-and-coming aggregation of leafy, stroller-friendly byways and chic, restaurant-speckled avenues. But in journalist T.J. English’s slavishly detailed history of the neighborhood from the 1960s to the 1980s, Hell’s Kitchen more than lives up to its infernal moniker as he recounts the exploits of a vicious gang of Irish criminals dubbed The Westies. The gang's reign of terror over the neighborhood left a trail of bodies in its wake. Focusing on infamous members like Mickey Featherstone and Jimmy Coonan, English tracks the gang’s rise and fall and pulls no punches in detailing their most violent deeds — a gripping account of a troubled era that mercifully is no longer with us.

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‘The Executioner’s Song'
By Norman Mailer
Initially dubbed a “true life novel,” Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the life, crimes and execution of murderer Gary Gilmore puts the ongoing debate about the death penalty center-stage. Mailer delves into the convicted killer’s unrelenting insistence on demanding his own execution and his attorneys' struggle to defy those wishes. The controversial book was later turned into a TV-movie that won Tommy Lee Jones and Emmy for his portrayal of Gilmore.

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© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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