Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry

5 stars

Helter Skelter is a truly astonishing book, and one that deservedly ranks amongst the best True Crime books I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a fair few). Co-written by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, it laid to rest more than a few misconceptions I’d held about Charles Manson (I was labouring under the belief that the five murders committed at 10050 Cielo Drive were the only deaths that he and his followers stood accused of, when actually these were just the horrific tip of the iceberg) and, through the incredible amount of investigative work on the part of the prosecution team, built a clear picture of events from the discovery of the first crime scene, through the (inept) police investigation, and into the sometimes bizarre trial of Manson and his murderous Family.

The book held many revelations for me – and not just in upwardly adjusting the number of Manson Family victims. Although I’d been aware that the Tate crime scene was particularly horrifying, I had no idea to what extent. Set upon with an inhuman savagery that was hard to even read about, it’s incredibly difficult to understand what could possibly lead someone to commit such a crime – let alone be ready to do it again the very next night, when the LaBianca’s suffered the same ordeal. Bugliosi does a fair job of helping us to try understand that, tracing the origins of the Family and, through detailed witness testimony, showing how the hold that Manson had over his followers had come about while making it clear that their victims were far more numerous than those they were convicted of killing – even Family members were not immune from Manson’s murderous designs.

But the crimes themselves were not the only awful shocks in store – I was astonished at the interviews and testimonies of Family members, particularly Susan Atkins, who not only showed no remorse but were actually proud of and talked about their crimes with undisguised glee. Even worse, it seems that if it hadn’t been for Atkins big mouth and pride in her savagery, the Family may not have even been caught. The incompetence shown by the police – whether it be obliterating prints at the Tate crime scene, disregarding important information from witnesses, not bothering to collect important evidence they’d been informed of (it was left to a TV crew to collect the bloody clothes worn by the murderers), losing evidence and, at one point, angrily denying that investigating crimes and gathering evidence was even their job! – won them the palpable disgust of Bugliosi, and before long it was a disgust I wholeheartedly shared.

It’s a testament to the hard work and skill of the prosecution that they were able to successfully convict those involved in such a complex case, even while the Family members that remained free made attempts to take the lives of witnesses and lawyers, and it’s a testament to Bugliosi and his co-author Curt Gentry that they were able to take such a complex case and turn it into this compelling, informative book.

If you're at all interested in True Crime this is a book I would definitely recommend - but be prepared to have your faith in humanity and law enforcement well and truly shaken, if not completely demolished, by the time you've finished.

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