Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Helter Skelter

Talk about guilty pleasures. Whenever I'm feeling low on energy and enthusiasm, I find myself gravitating toward true crime books. I blame my mother, who was and is fascinated by serial killers and whose copy of Helter Skelter sat on our bookshelves my whole childhood, just out of my reach -- I was sure it had to be good, with a title like that, but I wasn't allowed to read it. But this past week, after a long succession of snow days and kid illnesses, I finally got it out of the library.

Wow, is it ever good -- even better than Ann Rule's Ted Bundy book, The Stranger Beside Me, which is really saying something. What makes the author, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, a top-notch lawyer and investigator also makes him an excellent writer: an eye for the significant detail and a deep curiosity about people and their motivations. Bugliosi didn't just try to figure out what happened, but why -- how those particular crimes emerged from those particular characters at that particular time.

Maybe that's why I like true crime: when it's at its best, it's like good fiction. To perhaps misquote Flannery O'Connor, it's all about what people will do, in spite of everything.

There's a new book out called The Triumph of the Thriller, which argues that some of the best writing today is to be found in thriller and crime fiction. Maybe so. But I wouldn't know, because while I like a good solid mystery, I usually can't get beyond the first few pages of those big, blockbuster-type thrillers: they're too packed with action and dialogue. Things happen because the form requires that lots of things happen; events don't spring organically from characters -- they're imposed upon the characters. Obviously, it's a matter of taste, but it seems to me that movies are a much better medium for exploding cars and speedy banter and actiony storytelling. Fiction is best at going inward.

And that, I would argue, is what the best true crime does, too. It might be impossible to ever get inside the head of Charlie Manson (thank goodness, I suppose), but Bugliosi's efforts make for truly interesting reading.

3 comments:

5 Red Pandas said...

Speaking of serial killers...my grandmother used to work with a program that did education in prisons and jails like Riker's Island, etc. Well, she said that "Son of Sam" was taking a class, and they had to change the textbook because he was one of the cases highlighted in the book. That's notoriety.

zoe said...

ooh, weird synchronicity, I just read a thing about character rather than plot driven stories in "Bird by Bird" today and told my students that O'Connor quote. It must be true...

rmellis said...

I can't even imagine having Son of Sam in a class!!! Yipes!!!

You know, it's possible I first saw that quote in Bird by Bird... I'm pretty sure I read it. The other place I could have seen it is in Mystery and Manners -- a great book of O'Connor's essays and reviews...