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Lock Your Doors, Don't Talk to Strangers, and Other True Crime Advice

by Mike Nilsson

*This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of RA News.*

True crime writing ranges from "good" people behaving badly to "bad" people behaving monstrously. Although true crime's lurid details and grim crime scene photos aren't for every reader, this genre is more than psychos and sensationalism: well-executed true crime offers compelling insights into human nature. True crime writing offers not only chilling portraits of evil, but also insights into our vulnerability, and -- sometimes -- how we learn to survive and endure. The best true crime writing transcends tabloid excess and seeks the roots of criminal behavior and its long-lasting effects on individuals, families, and communities. They are cautionary as well as cathartic stories that force us to reflect upon our common humanity -- including its unpleasant possibilities. Investigate the true crime accounts below; but remember to lock your doors -- and don't talk to strangers, unless they have really good book suggestions.

Being rich, famous, and beautiful offered no protection against the violence wrought by Charles Manson’s followers in the summer of 1969. Seven innocent people were murdered in a chic Los Angeles neighborhood, including the glamorous actress Sharon Tate. Deputy District Attorney Vincent T. Bugliosi was assigned to the highly publicized case; five years later, he collected his insider insights into the now iconic true crime thriller Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. An immediate bestseller, it also garnered the 1975 Edgar Award for Best Factual Crime writing. Bugliosi's lucid, riveting prose set a new standard for the genre, as did his candid but thoughtful approach to the lives of the victims as well as their killers. His comprehensive treatment of the case from beginning to end -- from state-of-the-art forensics and old-fashioned detective work, to the case's dramatic legal proceedings, and the cultural impact the murders -- is now standard in made-for-TV modern crime dramas, and an inspiration to many later true-crime authors.  Helter Skelter convincingly portrayed the so-called "Manson Family" as the epitome of mainstream suburbia's worst fears -- at least until the mid-1970s when Ann Rule introduced us to another kind of killer entirely.

A former police officer and struggling writer, Ann Rule worked part-time on a crisis hotline in Washington state. Her colleague was a handsome, pleasant, and smart young man next to a pleasant young man: Ted Bundy, who would eventually be found guilty of multiple homicides, and executed in Florida's electric chair in 1989. Rule chronicles her accidental friendship with Bundy, his criminal career, and his demise in The Stranger Beside Me. Her account offers readers deeply personal insights into Bundy's dangerous charisma and profoundly monstrous nature. With breathtaking immediacy, Rule describes how her initial perception of him as trusted friend is transformed into her reluctant, horrified understanding of his frighteningly violent true nature.  Supported by Rule's careful research and her periodic updates to the original edition, The Stranger Beside Me stands as one of the 20th century's most intimate portraits of evil.

Historian David King introduces us to a war-time monster as secretive as Bundy was brazen. With Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, King vividly evokes Paris during World War II: a city near paralyzed by fear, rotten with police corruption, and riddled with collective paranoia. Against this grim backdrop, Dr. Marcel Petiot preyed primarily on Jews trapped in the city, and desperate to escape the Nazi death squads that occupied it. Dr. Petiot promised his victims shelter and safe transport out of the city -- for a hefty price, of course; after bilking them out of their money, he brutally murdered them and often reaped "bonus" profits by selling their effects. In addition to a thoroughly compelling portrait of Petiot's diabolical psyche, King vividly illustrates how social disorder wrought by war allowed this killer to claim at least 27 innocent victims. For similarly chilling mix of history plus true crime, try Erik Larson's Devil in the White City. Against the bustle and upheaval of Chicago's preparations for the 1893 World's Fair, swindler, adulterer, and deranged serial killer H.H. Holmes claimed an unverifiable number of victims. His stately, custom-designed home occupied nearly a whole city block, and contained hidden torture rooms, trap doors, staircases that led to blank walls, gassing chambers, and a basement furnace for immolating human remains. Larson's suspenseful account of "America's First Serial Killer" is a perfect choice for both history buffs and true crime fans.

Journalist David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets reads like a combination of literary fiction and a thriller -- and it’s all the more captivating for being a true story. Simon records his experiences shadowing Baltimore's homicide squad during the 1980s, during a period when violent deaths reached epidemic proportions. His lean, direct prose goes at breakneck speed, putting readers convincingly "at the scene" with police detectives -- unmarked Crown Vic lights flashing, rain glistening on the asphalt -- as they note every detail in hopes of eventually catching the perp.  Simon follows their leads, sits in on suspect interviews, and attends postmortems and trials to realistically convey the stress, boredom, long hours, and coffee-fueled work of real cops.

Like David Simon, Robert Kolker is also an award-winning investigative reporter. His work for New York magazine led to Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, an indictment of prostitution, social indifference, misogyny, and the near-invisibility of the poor and the marginalized. In 2010 the burlap-wrapped bodies of four women were found near a lonely beach in Long Island. Who were they? Who killed them? Kolker investigate these questions in a compelling narrative account of failed dreams, broken families, and ruined opportunities -- all exacerbated by poverty and drug addiction. Kolker recounts the deeply unhappy lives of the prostitutes and runaways who all died at the hand of one unknown assailant, giving each victim the dignity of their individual tragedies, their sad ends standing as mute testimony to life’s unfairness. His atmospheric approach will make you never, ever want to open the front door for a stranger again.

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Michael Nilsson is a freelance writer living in North Carolina.