A True Detective Reading Guide

As of late, the Southern Gothic genre has experienced a resurgence. In my opinion, this is in large part due to the fabulous True Detective. However, this particular genre has long been a favorite of mine – in television, film, and fiction. So, if you’re like me and missing one of the best shows on television, you might want to give the following books a try. It’s worth noting that I’m limiting this to fiction, I could go for some nihilistic philosophy books, but where would the fun be in that?

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. “The Devil All the Time” interweaves the life stories of families from downtrodden towns in West Virginia and Ohio. The book starts out with Willard Russell, a South Pacific war veteran, who can’t quite get past the terrible violence he witnessed. He meets the beautiful Charlotte and they have a son together, Arvin Eugene, who is the binding force of the novel. We’re also introduced to a crooked small town sheriff, a violent married couple who have an insidious pastime, a despicable so-called preacher, and a traveling duo who make what money they can while on the lamb. Forces of nature or fate drive these people together, forever entwining their lives.

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash.
I’ve not officially reviewed this one, but it’s wonderful. The Washington Post says (accurately): “Cash adeptly captures the rhythms of Appalachian speech, narrating his atmospheric novel in the voices of three characters . . . The story has elements of a thriller, but Cash is ultimately interested in how unscrupulous individuals can bend decent people to their own dark ends.”

Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill. Set against the rural backdrop of southern Indiana, Bill’s collection tell the stories of the downtrodden and the deservedly damned. Every last word is brilliant. From ‘These Old Bones’ (a grandfather pimps out his granddaughter) to ‘Crimes in Southern Indiana’ (not for dog lovers), Bill presents a no holds barred vision of the impoverished, meth-filled landscape of the American Midwest. You’ll find no picket fences, no family game night, and no chance at redemption.

Edge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale. A novel whose trip downriver has been called a cross between Deliverance and Huckleberry Finn, Edge of Dark Water is at times a thriller, a mystery, and an adventure novel, but it is always excellent. It’ll satisfy your longing for the Louisiana of True Detective.

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris. As thirteen year old fumbles and falters through the maze of drugs in North Carolina’s hill country, she refuses to be limited by what society thinks a little girl should do – if she dresses provocatively then she damn sure wants men to want to fuck her. As the reader follow Nikki’s descent into criminality and rebellion, we watch as she is easily swayed by the world she wants to control.

Deliverance by James Dickey. Dickey accomplishes a rare feat with Deliverance – a gripping, fast-paced adventure novel that is also compelling literary fiction. He contrasts moments of beautiful prose (though there are arguably a few unintentionally silly moments) with stark, violent imagery. For as lengthy and verbose a poet as James Dickey is, it’s ironic that his best known work is also his most lean. Although superficially it’s simply a story of four men, two canoes, and the wild, upon further reflection Deliverance delves into the moral ambiguity of life, the true darkness of human nature, and what it means to achieve deliverance.

The Shunned House by H. P. Lovecraft. I feel like a lot of Gothic noir has Lovecraft to thank. The Shunned House is the story of a house on Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island. There have been no reports of specters or illusions, but nearly all the residents of the house die an unexpected death. If they manage to survive, they are driven mad. The only sign of an unnatural presence is an odd yellow vapor in the dank basement, mold growing in the pattern of dead bodies, and a sense of evil pervading the air. It’s possible that the house has a sanguinolent hunger, as some of the victims have been drained of blood. As the conservative protagonist and his physician uncle decide to investigate, they are faced with unimaginable horror. One line that’s uttered in the novel that could have come straight from Cohle’s mouth:  From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. This hillbilly odyssey is a brilliant depiction of how barren and hostile life in the rural Ozarks can be. To my knowledge, Woodrell nails the dialect and it came as no surprise when I read he is native to and currently resides in the area.  If you are looking for compelling, dark fiction, I would strongly suggest Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. “With its profound sense of moral isolation and its compassionate glimpses into its characters’ inner lives, the novel is considered McCullers’ finest work. At its center is the deaf-mute John Singer, who becomes the confidant for various types of misfits in a Georgia mill town during the 1930s. Each one yearns for escape from small town life.”

Do you watch True Detective? What books would you suggest for fans of the show?

22 thoughts on “A True Detective Reading Guide

  1. I’ve not read anything Southern Gothic for awhile I think. Of course, my favorites are older pieces, like A Rose for Emily. The students love the ending of that one! Gets them every time.


    1. Thank you! I read a few others and I was a bit sad that they already covered Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, but I felt like a few were still missing.


  2. Love it, I took down all these and added them to my long long list. Last month I finally read and loved, Devil all the Time (its been on my ereader since it was in the Tournament of Books!) and then read Child of God by Cormac McCarthy, which also fits this list, and is very very good.


  3. I loved every minute of True Detective. I didn’t want it to end because the main characters were so well developed and interesting. I bought Nic Pizzolato’s first two books, but I haven’t read them yet. Soon! As for other reading suggestions: obvious but just for general Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor. Less obvious suggestions would be Larry Brown, Ron Rash, Breece D’J Pancake, and Pinckney Benedict.


    1. I wanted to suggest Flannery O’Connor, but another site – that also did a list – beat me to it. I thought Cormac McCarthy would be a good addition as well.


  4. I loved Winter’s Bone. The only one on your list I’ve read, so plenty to add to my ‘to read’ pile. I’ve read some other books by Joe R. Lansdale that I enjoyed, so will start there.


    1. Sorry, just to add that Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (although set in Mississippi) isn’t quite gothic, but evokes the landscape shots of True Detective brilliantly. It also contains missing children and wronged suspects – a great book. Definitely worth a read for fans of the show.


  5. Excellent article! I love Southern Gothic, and from this list I especially liked Winter’s Bone.

    A couple of other titles I would recommend: Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons and Faraway Places by Tom Spanbauer. Both combine Southern Gothic style with (dark) coming-of-age tales. (Faraway Places takes place in Idaho, so not technically the South, but as you have a book on the list that is set in Indiana, I figured you were going more for stylistic authenticity and less for literal location.)


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