I wrote this post last September, after belatedly discovering the tremendous True Crime author Ann Rule, author of more than 30 books. With news overnight that Ms Rule has passed away, aged 83, I think of her again and hope she can finally rest in peace...
The Queen of True Crime
I seem to have developed the True Crime bug, big time, and have found myself creeped out for days now reading The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule (Pocket Books; reprint 2008).
This book is considered the blueprint for true crime, the bible for all true crime writers, and yet when Ann Rule wrote it she was a total novice. While she had once been a cop and had written extensively on crime for various detective magazines, she had never written a book before.
But that's not the stunning part about it.
What is truly incredible about this story—and why I guess it broke all the rules and became the template for both true crime and immersion writing—is that Rule had no idea, as she embarked on the book, that she not only knew the murderer, she was his friend.
Soon after being commissioned to write about a dreadful series of murders across America involving scores of beautiful young women who were brutally attacked, she came to realise that the leading suspect in the cases, indeed the only suspect, was a man she had befriended while working in a crisis centre. A man she genuinely liked!
It was, of course, the infamous Ted Bundy, a name that still sends shivers down women's spines 40 years later.
Bundy was a monster like no other.
He confessed (albeit indirectly) to more than 35 murders, each one horrendously degrading, the kind that gives you nightmares. And Rule was on his speed dial.
Incredible stuff. Even more incredibly, Rule didn't hang up the phone and run (as I probably would). She didn't baulk at writing the book once Bundy was arrested, nor did she hesitate to remain in contact with that monster throughout his incarceration, taking his calls, returning his letters and even sending regular checks to help pay for his smokes in jail.
I don't believe she did that for the sake of the book.
Not at all. It was not a marketing ploy. Judging from the book, she genuinely liked this man and wasn't afraid to admit it! She couldn't quite believe at first that he could do such monstrous things. When she finally had to accept this truth, she still felt a certan empathy for him which may seem bizarre to the average person, but which is very brave and honest of her to admit.
This book does what I think Virginia Peters tries to accomplish in her newly released Have You Seen Simone? (Penguin; 2014), see earlier blogs, yet fails at. This book takes us through the nitty gritty of a true crime (or 35 of them, and it's gruelling stuff!) while also showing us an incredible friendship and a first-hand insight into a murderer's mind.
She balances her friendship and the truth with such applomb. It really is an incredible feat and has been worth every jittery moment of reading it.
I have not enjoyed the book—how could anyone enjoy such horror?—but I did find it gripping, un-put-downable, and I was mesmerised by the words of an innocent writer caught in the middle. Unlike Peters, this really is as much about Rule as it is about Bundy. Yet we never feel that Rule believes that. She never takes over the story or makes it about herself. She is just there, stuck in the middle, and we are stuck right alongside her.
It's no wonder, as Rule says at the start of this reprint, people still contact her about the book all these decades later. She has gone on to write scores of other books, but this is the one that haunts all who come across it. And still haunts her.
Happy (less creepy!) reading everyone.