I tend to read a lot of true crime stories, in magazines like Texas Monthly, Philadelphia (where I’m writer at large), Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and every other mainstream publication where they appear. Calvin Trillin is best known as a humorist, but his book Killings is just as good as his lighter material. Plus, the book’s mere existence seems to confirm the fact that, if you’re writing nonfiction for any length of time, you might specialize in food, music, art, architecture or politics, but I suspect you’ll at least give some thought to trying your hand at a good murder story.
I’ve written a lot of true crime pieces. I count this story, of a young Philadelphia girl killed execution style in the basement of her home, as one of the most moving, for me, that I’ve done. I recently wrote this story for Philadelphia, about one of the most perplexing unsolved missing persons cases in recent American history. And I once even talked over a glass of wine with the alleged head of the Philadelphia mob. I even wrote a story that I believe explains the average city homicide—the how and why that petty disputes explode into mortal anger.
I’ll be writing a lot more true crime stories in the future, and I’ve just begun reading some full-length true crime books. You can’t get very far in that pursuit without coming across Ann Rule, a former detective magazine writer who has published about 30 titles. Rule’s personal story is compelling. She and her husband separated. She raised four children as a single mom, supporting herself with freelance detective magazine articles before rising to national prominence with The Stranger Beside Me. Rule, it turned out, worked at a suicide prevention hotline with Ted Bundy in the years before he became known as a serial killer.
The conventions of true crime writing, the foreshadowing and sometimes hyper-dramatic pacing, are often derided, like the staples of any genre. But I turned the pages as fast as I could. The book is transfixing, not least because the narrative forces you to confront a time when the name “Ted Bundy” was not already synonymous with murder. By the end, however, the story was so bleak, so much blood was shed, that I felt somehow unclean. For a few days, as images from Bundy’s murders rose, unbidden, into my mind, I wished I could unlearn the grisly details. I suppose that is a mark of how well Rule put the story across. That said, I think one of the most profitable reasons to read Stranger is to see the author who emerges over its length.
The newest paperback features all the updates Rule has written, for the many editions of Stranger published over the years. To her credit, she seems never to have been numbed by her proximity to Bundy or the many homicides she’s written about over the years. She seems unsure of how to process all this violence. And she has the added challenge of trying to understand how she sat so close to Bundy, talked to him about personal issues over glasses of wine, without ever realizing that he was, all the while, pursuing dark, psychopathic fantasies. In each update, she seems to land on some new way of viewing the story. At one point she even admits that at the time she first published Stranger—a best seller among best sellers—she didn’t fully understand Bundy or psychopathology.
What’s most remarkable is that she retains the ability to see Bundy with compassion, saying his lack of any real morality probably always made him feel like he was “from another planet”—a facet of his personality that must have caused him both to feel a tremendous sense of alienation and loneliness, and also enabled him to look at his victims in the cold-blooded way he did. I admire her for her ability to retain some feeling for him, yet finally identify him, I think, in starkly accurate terms, as a man who was somehow not fully human. That is, if qualities like compassion and empathy are what enable us to cooperate and form the sorts of communities and societies that propagate the human race, Bundy was not one of us—not fit to live free in a civilized world. The Rule who emerges, at the end of this process, seems a little worse for the wear—but clear eyed and ready to keep working.