Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Truth About Crime

by Holly West

Awhile back I asked for recommendations for true crime books on Facebook. I got a boat load of suggestions and I realized that though I like true crime a lot, I hadn't read (or even heard of) the majority of books being recommended. So I'm glad I asked.

Here is a sampling of those recommendations:

FATAL VISION by Joe McGinniss
IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote
LA NOIR by John Buntin
THE LAST MAFIOSO by Ovid Demaris
BLOOD AND MONEY by Thomas Thompson
HELTER SKELTER by Vincent Bugliosi

There were a whole lot more. Joseph Wambaugh's books got several mentions. IN COLD BLOOD probably got the most, which didn't surprise me because it's one of my all time favorite books.

Maybe because she died so recently, I decided to read THE STRANGER BESIDE ME by Ann Rule. First published in 1980, it's an autobiographical and biographical book about serial killer Ted Bundy. Rule knew him personally before his arrest and had coincidently been contracted to write a book about the murders he was eventually executed for. Imagine her surprise and dismay when she learned her good friend Ted was the prime suspect. The edition I read, issued in 2008, contained several updates, including a chapter about Ted Bundy's execution in 1989.

I've never been all that interested in Mr. Bundy's story and now, having read it, I'm ambivalent about the book. I woke up last Wednesday morning with a cold so I gave myself permission to lay in bed and read all day. The cold continued for two more days and let me tell you--reading voraciously about a serial killer for three days straight is a bit of an emotional drain. Half way through I was exhausted and disgusted and wanted badly to quit. But I'd invested so much time in the book thus far I had to see it through. And I did, even though my pleasure reading had turned to dread when I contemplated returning to the written scene of Ted Bundy's terrible crimes.

It's not so much that the book itself was bad, though I've read better true crime books. Rule spent a lot of time ruminating on her relationship with Ted Bundy, especially toward the end of the book (which was also chronicling end of his life). Who wouldn't? It must be difficult to process ones feelings about such a person when there's been a close friendship. But I kind of felt like she was doing it at our--the readers'--expense. I didn't need so much self-reflection.

The real problem for me was simply reading, in detail, about such atrocious crimes. There were so many. We'll never know how many women he killed. He never fully confessed to any of the murders until what looked to be his final execution date drew near, when he thought his life might be spared if he began giving up information about the murders he'd committed for the sake of the families involved. When asked if Bundy's life should temporarily be spared in order for them to know the details of their loved ones deaths--and in some cases, the location of their remains--every one of them said no, execute him now.

It touched something dark in me, to be privy to so much senseless death, and it drained me. It made me wonder at my proclivity toward writing fictional crime, my desire to someday write my own true crime book, and my preference for reading both.

And here, finally, is the point I'd like to make: Though I'm not the least bit ashamed of these preferences, I try never forget that there is a true crime behind every fictional one. Which isn't to say that every novel we write is based on a real-life crime, but only to remember that crime does happen in real life and causes a great deal of suffering. My decision to write about it isn't to glorify, but to shed light on it, to empathize with its victims and to come to some understanding about those who commit it.

Ironically, I came to no real understanding of Ted Bundy, even after reading 500+ pages about him. Nor do I want to, particularly. I'm unprepared to call him--or anyone--consummately evil, but boy oh boy, if such a thing exists in this world, he surely comes close.

Maybe I need to detox with a good romance. Got any recommendations?


Kristopher said...

I was the one who suggested Fatal Vision. I really wish the television miniseries from the 80's was available to view today. I just remember being very scared after watching that.

Years later, I learned that there was so much more going on behind the scenes. It seems the author of the book was hired by the prime suspect to help prove that he was innocent. But the book did just the opposite and open up a whole case of ethics in crime reporting.

Fascinating stuff.

Al Tucher said...

More recently, Errol Morris in A WILDERNESS OF ERROR claims to have debunked McGinniss. I have my doubts, but I should read it before rejecting it.

Kristopher said...

Yes, I haven't read Wilderness yet, but I do hope to at some point.

Holly West said...

I have FATAL VISION on my list, and now A WILDERNESS OF ERROR for after my vacation from true crime.