Friday, November 28, 2014

True Crime by True Masters in Book & On Screen ~ 4 of the best

There is absolutely nothing like a great crime book. I consider such a book one of the wonders of the world. Today they come in novel, non fiction and novel-true crime blend. The crime blended novel-docu has provided a platform for first rate novelists to bring their talents into the true crime field. Unfortunately, it seems you have to be a Pulitzer Prize winning level talent of author to pull it off so I am giving you those two first, Mailer's and Capote's. The final two are straight true crime books. There is no fiction element to them.

"The Executioner's Song" by Norman Mailer is my favorite of his books. It is based on the true story of Gary Gilmore, a Utah killer, but it is written like a novel. He won the Pulitzer Prize for it and deservedly so. If you don't read and will only watch the movie instead, then you are in luck. Tommy Lee Jones made it playing Gary Gilmore. This is Jones early in his career. He does a wonderful job. His girlfriend is played by Roseanna Arquette who was also quite good. However, you do lose Mailer's prose when you watch it instead of read it. That is a big loss as his words give you insights there is no other way of gaining.

Mailer captures the interior process of a killer. There is something missing inside Gilmore and there is also an inner rage about who he is stuck being as a person. He killed a hapless gas station attendant seemingly just for the hell of it. Gilmore wanted the death penalty and Utah used a firing squad, which was fine by him. You could almost say this was a murderer who wanted to commit suicide. It is a long book and I read it at the speed of light. I couldn't put it down and felt extreme book loss when it was over. Picking another book to read after reading that tour de force was an impossible task.


I read "In Cold Blood" when it was first written and saw the first movie. I also saw the remake and read the book a second time a few years ago. It is always a wonderful experience. Capote was the first writer to take a true crime, research the heck out of it, and then write its account like a novel. No one had done this before. It was considered a huge taboo in the literary world. He smashed this taboo to smithereens with this book so that it is now an American classic.

When the event happened, it was less commonplace than it is today. Specifically, two criminals stopped at a farm owned by the Clutter family and during the night they terrorized and then murdered the entire family. This was also out in the Great Plains, in a very small town, and it was about the last place one could picture this happening. The trial was held with Capote attending and he was also becoming quite close to the murderers, especially Perry.

It is very rare for me to reread a book and even rarer for me to love it as much the second time around. But that is certainly true of this book. It is a tour de force rendering of a crime story and I was enthralled with every page.

Robert Blake played Perry in the original movie and he did a brilliant job. Everyone agrees that it was his finest role as an actor. The irony is that he stood trial for murder himself decades later, of the murder of his wife. He was acquitted, which Perry was not.



Ann Rule did it all in her true crime book, "The Stranger Beside Me." She knew Ted Bundy before she knew he was a serial killer and after she'd finally accepted he was one. She was also an experienced crime reporter who understood the legal system and sat through the legal proceedings as they dragged on and on. Meanwhile, Bundy kills throughout, with the worst being after he escapes from his first prison. Rule even links him with yet an earlier murder in his hometown when he was only 15, showing he started killing even earlier than she'd previously supposed. 

I read the 35th printing of this book, which is no small testimony to how right she's painted the portrait. If you're going to read about a serial killer, there's nothing like the real thing. I read this on a plane ride to Florida and, although I normally detest flying, I barely noticed I was in a plane, I was so engrossed in this book.


Ted Bundy may have had as many as 100 murder victims across the United States.  To stop his killing spree, however, he had to be convicted of one. Serial murderers are hard to find, much less try and convict.  This is because they murder complete strangers. The Bundy case is well known because he was good looking, once a law student and suicide hotline volunteer, charming, and personable. Bundy was also an incredibly vicious serial killer of young woman with long hair usually parted in the middle, just like his former girlfriend who had broken up with him. As you study the pictures of the victims in Rule's book, it is amazing how much they resemble one another.

How early Bundy got started as a serial killer is unknown but it is known that he killed across the country, beginning in the Northwest.  He was caught once in Colorado for his killing but he escaped while awaiting trial. Bundy not only raped and killed his victims but he revisited the bodies when they were decomposing and had sex with them again.  He was thus also considered a necrophiliac.

Bundy made his fatal evidentiary mistakes during his killing spree at the Chi Omega sorority house on the campus of Florida State University. I found the entire Chi Omega murder case fascinating. It also brought Bundy to an end as he was convicted and executed.

There have been movies made of Bundy but none of them are very good. This is one character who has not yet been found by the right actor.

"Helter Skelter" is written by the prosecutor who won the case against the Manson Gang. He has help from a professional writer as well but it was his marshaling of all the facts and exhibits in this huge case which led to victory. So it is truly his book in all important ways. Nevertheless, just like with Anne Rule, no one is going to mistake him for Capote or Mailer anytime soon. 

If you do not like reading, then I have also seen the mini series based on the book. You are in luck. The makers did find the perfect actor to play Manson. Steve Railsback plays the best Charles Manson anyone could ever do. 

The book is huge. I couldn't put it down and learned every detail of the murders perpetrated by the Manson family in 1969 of Sharon Tate and friends plus the La Bianco husband and wife. The miniseries has to omit a lot because of the massive size of the book which has every fascinating detail of the case including taking us through every step of the prosecution of the case. However, you may not be as eager to read every scintillating detail as I was and thus may prefer the mini series. 

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