Ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated with true crime, and serial killers in particular. It's not that I like them - I'm certainly not about to sign up for any jailhouse pen-pals any time soon - and I don't get off on people being hurt in any way so you don't need to start backing away just yet, but when it comes to books and TV, I simply can't get enough. And it seems I'm not the only one - there's now such demand that a rash of dedicated TV stations show us 'Snapped - Women Who Kill' and 'Born To Kill' and 'Other Variations On Killing' on a daily basis, and there's always people hovering in the well-stocked True Crime section of my local bookstore.
There's so much to choose from, and I've read a lot of the many books out there on the subject. Some of them have been lurid, some have been incredibly poorly written, and some have been pants-wettingly terrifying. Here's my selection of the best true crime reads for my fellow crime-freaks.
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote
In a small Kansas town in 1959 the Clutter family were brutally murdered in their home, with no apparent motive, by two drifters. Capote takes us through events, leading up to and following the murders as well as on Death Row, painting so vivid a picture that you feel as though you know both the Clutter family and their killers intimately. An incredible book that didn't feel the need to lapse into hysteria or sensationalism, there's not much to say about this book that hasn't already been said - it's very easy to see why this is feted as a masterpiece.
The Ice-Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer - Philip Carlo
I got chills, they're multiplying...Nope, nothing to do with Danny Zuko but Richard Kuklinski (aka The Iceman) greased a hell of a lot of people and this is a riveting, chilling account of his life and crimes.
Having had a truly horrific childhood that did away with whatever humanity he had to start with, Richard was already a killer by the age of 13. Discovering a fearsome talent for murder he was already killing for sport by the time he was tapped to carry out contracts for various Mob families, and continued indulging in his hobby alongside his mob work leading to a truly terrifying trail of dead people behind him. The likes of Gacy and Bundy seriously have nothing on this guy.
While he did have some form of a code - women and children were off-limits (though that didn't stop him from being violently abusive to his own wife) - anyone else was fair fame and you could terrifyingly find yourself killed for such misdemeanours as being a bad driver, flipping him off or even just for walking your dog down the street when he's got a new weapon he wants to try out. Even worse were the various tortures Kuklinski thought up for those who 'had to suffer'. When even hardened gangsters are sickened, you know you're in a different world altogether.
Compiled from hundreds of hours of interviews, while its contents are sensational this never felt sensationalised and was instead written in a matter-of-fact, unhistrionic way with the author's voice never becoming intrusive, quietly putting you firmly in Kuklinski's shoe and giving you a picture of all sides of the man, not just the killer.
Also looking at how he was caught, I have to admire the size of the balls on the detectives that went after Kuklinski, and particularly on Polifrone who got to chum up to him undercover, continuing to meet with him even knowing from the phone taps that the Ice Man was planning on killing him. That must have been some high-octane nightmare fuel...
Highly recommended, but this one's definitely not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Also currently being adapted into a film starring Michael Shannon (who always gives good psycho).
The Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy - Stephen G. Michaud & Hugh Aynesworth
A well written, compelling and completely terrifying look at the life and crimes of Ted Bundy, one of the world's most notorious serial killers, the authors could have been forgiven had they gone down the tabloid route - after all, a case where the killer represents himself in court and gets to interrogate his own surviving victims is pretty sensational in itself, before you add in the jailbreaks and the horror of his crimes, but instead they chose the far more interesting path and focus on the personality and 'psychopathology' of the killer - sometimes in his own words (which had a lot to do with my not being able to sleep afterwards).
Bundy managed to escape from jail twice in the course of his murderous career - leading to the infamous Chi Omega killings - and one of the things this book really brought home to me was how each time he was caught it was largely due to his own blundering (seeming like he almost wanted to get caught) rather than due to any brilliant deductions on the part of the police. In fact, Ted's name had come up many times in the early course of the investigations and was never followed up. This, and Bundy's assertion (amongst others) that "there are a lot of people who are not in prison, a lot of people who are not in prison, who were far more successful than I" went a long way towards giving me a serious case of the wiggins.
Make sure you have someone to stay with you for a while after reading this one...
The guys above were, thankfully, finally caught and felt the full weight of the justice system. Time now for a different kind of crime, and the dark side of justice...
Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three - Mara Leavitt
"I didn't think there was no possible way they could find us guilty when we didn't do it. Not in America. It's not what I was raised to believe would happen in America." - Jason Baldwin.You might hold the same beliefs as Jason - I know I had always held to the notion that 'the truth will out' and believed that the justice system would ensure that people accused of crimes would be considered 'innocent until proven guilty', with evidence being a major consideration when investigating crimes. I couldn't have been more wrong.
In 1993, three eight-year old boys were brutally murdered. Lacking any evidence other than the boys' bodies, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the next step would be for the police to start looking for and documenting evidence, interviewing anyone with a possible connection, and using logic, reason and years of proven procedures to build their case. Bless you. Instead what would occur is a flagrant and appalling abuse of the justice system in which prejudice and hearsay, along with defendants' music tastes, style of dress and choice of reading material is 'evidence', and where actual, physical evidence that links other suspects to the crime will be discounted as it doesn't fit with the theory the detectives have chosen to work with.
The theory the detectives chose to work on would build a sprawling, chaotic and nearly completely incoherent case centred around the idea of satanic cults operating in the area - the obsession of one Jerry Driver. The Chief Juvenile Officer for the county (whose job title should have more accurately read Chief Fucking Fantasist), Driver had an unhealthy fixation with a teenager named Damien Echols and had already been harassing him for the best part of a year, based on his belief that Damien was a Satanist. His reason for these beliefs? Damien was weird, wore black, wrote poetry, had read some books on witchcraft as well as enjoying Stephen King, and identified himself as Wiccan. (Well shit, you'd better arrest a lot of the people I know too). As for Jason? Well, he was a friend of Damien's, wasn't he? So, obviously also a satanic killer. Instead of looking into Driver's 'theories' impartially and with an eye for evidence, the police would take Driver's accusations and run with them, choosing to ignore (and if necessary, 'lose') any evidence that didn't agree with them and taking things such as Jason's owning 15 black t-shirts as proof of them being child-murderers, backing up this 'proof' with extremely suspect 'confessions' and witness statements. Jessie Miskelly Jr, whose 'confession' would be the basis of the state's case against the boys, was a vulnerable and intellectually challenged boy and the 'confession' itself is astounding - riddled with contradictions and errors, with detectives clearly suggesting what he ought to be saying next, and with Jessie clearly eager to please. The next most important statements came from an 8 year old boy, whose 'eyewitness' accounts were wildly conflicting and became increasingly lurid as time went on. Surely not the basis for a solid conviction, right? Surely when the case gets to court it'll be thrown out? Surely the fact that real, physical evidence exists that points to other suspects will see the boys cleared? Sorry, wrong again.
Instead, the boys will go to trial under one Judge Burnett, who has clearly already decided the boys are guilty and will not only do whatever he can to help the prosecution but also actively hinder the defence and ultimately lead to life sentences being given to Jessie and Jason, with Damien due to receive the death penalty.
After 18 years in prison, in 2011 Damien, Jason and Jessie were finally released after years of appeals and a huge campaign following the Paradise Lost documentaries, which I'd watched and which had piqued my interest in the case. However, the fact they're now free doesn't change the fact that not only were three little boys brutally murdered, but three other children had their lives stolen from them while a vicious child-killer has gotten away with murder.
It's my belief that the behaviour of the police, the prosecutors and the Judge in this case were nothing short of criminal - a malicious and wilful obstruction of justice. I spent most of my time reading about the case nearly howling with fury, and think that not only the people involved but the entire state of Arkansas should be ashamed of themselves for letting such a blatant miscarriage of justice occur.
As for me, I own a ton of black clothing (way more than Jason's 15 t-shirts), read lots of Stephen King, am a true crime junkie, and prefer Guns N Roses to pop music. I'm never visiting Arkansas as I'll probably be the next person accused of the murders, regardless of the fact that I've never visited America. The cops would doubtless find an impressionable child to say otherwise and I'd be done for.
As for this book, it's compelling, well-researched and documented and was clearly based on more investigative work than the detectives involved ever put in, and is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in the justice system. Just don't expect to have the same faith in that system by the time you've finished.
And for the truly dedicated....
The Executioner's Song - Norman Mailer
Previous to picking this up all I knew of Gary Gilmore had been gleaned from The Adverts' track, Gary Gilmore's Eyes. I now know everything I could possibly want to know (and more) about Gilmore's life, crimes, trial and death and while I may not have looked through Gilmore's eyes, I've seen through those of virtually everyone associated with him and his case.
Based on what must be an absolutely breathtaking amount of research and interviews, this is a painstaking recreation of the nine months following Gilmore's release from prison in 1976 (after spending much of his life incarcerated) and leading up to his execution following the murders of two strangers.
Presented in two parts, the first deals with Gary's release and adjustment to normal life. Due to the level of detail it soon starts to feel as though you're living alongside him, which isn't exactly a pleasant experience. Aswell as being clearly intelligent, Gary is a real piece of work and his behaviour soon starts to alienate those around him, including Nicole - the young woman with whom he's become involved. Their initial break-up is especially significant as Gary will later claim that he committed the murders for which he was tried so that he wouldn't kill Nicole, a claim I'm not entirely convinced by as he seemed to be something of a timebomb even prior to their break-up, with his temper and law-breaking rapidly escalating.
Gilmore's crimes are not extraordinary, sadly, but what happens next is - sentenced to death for the murders and refusing to appeal, the media goes wild and lawyers are sent scrambling as they move to try and stay the execution or fight for it to go ahead. This second part of the book did a great job of piecing together the events and this very murky moral issue is seen from all sides. I'm still not entirely clear as to what my own position is - whilst strongly opposing the death penalty I also support an individual's right to die, and it did seem as though the ensuing legal fight added a layer of cruelty to the sentence.
In addition to this, we also get a very intimate look at the relationship between Gary and Nicole which resumed following his arrest, and his influence over her is very clear from his letters as he seeks to manipulate her into suicide so that no other man can have her following his death. Perhaps even more manipulative though are the movers and shakers in the field of the media, and the tactics of fighting for exclusives and the amount of money that was changing hands for the story (which would have been far less valuable if Gilmore had not been executed) left me feeling very uneasy.
While at times this did start to drag a little (perhaps a little too much detail was included in places, and with so many players I got a little waylaid with keeping track of everybody), I don't believe I'll be lucky enough to read as comprehensive a book on such a subject again. I certainly won't read one as big!
That's it for my rambling. Good luck with your reading - my next True Crime read promises to be The Night Stalker by Philip Carlo, but I keep putting it off thanks to a) needing a looong time to get over the serious case of the wiggins that the Bundy book gave me, and b) seeing Ramirez on 'Born To Kill'. I don't believe in angels and demons, but he looked like the fucking devil. Yeesh...