The year is 2018. And yet, the two biggest sellers in the true crime genre remain, to this day, books about murders that happened well over 40 years ago respectively. They are both notorious as the standard to which all other true crime books are measured, and they are still just as frightening, evocative and sensitive to this day.
First, a disclaimer before I launch into my dual review for this post: I do not read a whole lot of true crime. So I can hardly consider myself an expert on the subject; therefore, I encourage any suggestions, debates and remarks as a result of my writing upon these two books. I just find it difficult to remove myself from the book enough for it to be an enjoyable process. The fact that the events that I’m reading about actually happened and to real people in the real world is, frankly, terrifying. I really have not much of a problem reading scary fictional crime, thriller or the occasional horror book, the non-fiction element is a bit off-putting at times. However, I resolved enough to put that aside in the case of these two incredible publications.
I first picked up Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in January, summer of 2016. It was a particularly hot summer, relentless heat, day in, day out. It made for many sleepless nights – not so great usually, but it enabled plenty of reading time for one of Capote’s most famous and iconic works. Although reading it into the wee hours of the night may not have been one of my wisest decisions (nightmares were had, I can assure you this now), it was a fantastic reading experience. Published in 1966, Capote details the murders of the Clutter family on their rural property in Holcomb, Kansas, USA. A strange hybrid between detached journalism and impassioned personal investigation, it remains just as compelling a read as it did during its tremendous success in the 1960s.
Inspired to investigate the circumstances surrounding the quadruple murder of the Clutter family (husband and wife Herb and Bonnie, and two of their teenaged children, Nancy and Kenyon), Capote was helped by Pulitzer winner Harper Lee in research. The primary focus of the research and, as such, the book itself, surrounded the accused killers: Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith. Their motivation? The supposed wealth of the Clutter family, in particular, Herb. Their reward? Around $40. And the cost of four lives, well before their times.
During the course of his research, Capote interviewed both Hickock and Smith, with the intention of hoping to learn more of the motivation and psyche of the two multiple murderers. It is what Capote concluded, particularly about Smith, which causes the rift in the literary community surrounding this publication as well as where the categorising of the book as “true crime” can tend to wane. Evidentially, Smith is portrayed as the more remorseful, sensitive and, indeed, human of the two killers. Capote was particularly fascinated by Smith and it clearly colours the narrative. Whether or not this is indeed an accurate portrayal is debatable; and perhaps something which we will never truly know (as the book was not published until both of the killers were executed).
Further criticism of the book leads to the suggestion that perhaps entire scenes and dialogues were fabricated for the purposes of the publication. The danger in this approach is the “pulling loose threads” notion – if we tug at any suspicions we may have at scenes that are less than truthful, the whole narrative is in danger of losing its credibility. And it is here that I believe that Capote’s work transcends a mere classic work of the written word, but indeed the rise of a whole new genre and its subsequent discussion points. How many works post 1966 have fallen to the same criticism? (Google: “James Frey, A Million Little Pieces” if you want to know just one of the answers). And just how indebted has the rise of memoir, true crime and non-fiction to In Cold Blood? And not just is this book responsible for a still burgeoning genre of writing, but an essentially readable one at that.
As In Cold Blood is much more than a stark, emotionless look at a sickening crime. It is nothing at all like an account that readers would find in, for example, a newspaper. It is compellingly told in the same way in which a great novel is moving, page-turning and emotional. A split narrative, a masterful way with words and a scrupulous attention to detail make it this way. It took Capote six years to write this book, and it has certainly stood the test of time and is well worth a read if it has not yet made it to your reading pile.
As amazing and pioneering a work as In Cold Blood is, it is still in second place in terms of all time sales of true crime books. It takes the back seat to the second book which features in this piece. A book whose subject matter remains as terrifying an incident in history as it ever has, and even still has a renewed significance approaching the 50 year anniversary of the murders.
Written by the attorney who was the successful prosecutor of the very case of which the book tells, Vincent Bugliosi, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders remains the biggest selling true crime book in history. It is a case which holds a grotesque fascination in popular society even to this day as it has so much diverse points of interest: sex, drugs, Hollywood, music and a charismatic yet deadly leading man whose influence had catastrophic and devastating affects.
I read Helter Skelter over a year after purchasing it. The prospect of such a thick book about such thoroughly horrible and nightmarish events was simply too daunting. It was only with hearing of the news that Charles Manson had died in prison, aged 83, in November 2017, that I thought that the time was apt to finally read it. Now that the ringleader behind the whole horrendous movement had died, it should not be such a frightening and scary read, right? I could not have been more wrong.
Right from the opening chapter of the book, where Bugliosi describes the events that happened at the Polanski household on that fateful 1969 night where Sharon Tate and four others were brutally murdered without sense, reason or regret. The descriptions are graphic and not for the faint of heart. It is from this scene that the book expands – the hunt for the murderers, the search for motive and the saga that their criminal trial became.
It is clear from this book that Bugliosi is a masterful attorney – especially considering that he managed to convict Manson of the murders that happened at both the Tate and, later, the Labianca households without his physical presence is masterful. But what is not so obvious until the reading of the book is his mastery of human depiction. His creation of malicious and deviant characters are so very frightening that it is chilling to consider that they are, in fact, real people who did these very real, consequential things. In particular, how he represents Susan Atkins aka. Sadie Mae Glutz, is the most poignant in this case.
It is well known about the evils that have driven Charles Manson to commit these heinous crimes and to create such a “Family” of evil. The most memorable of the Family members from the reading of this book is Susan Atkins. A particularly young woman with obvious mental illness is created as such a sinister and evil person who experiences no remorse; in fact, joys in the murders that she partook as a part of the Family. She has also since died in jail, but her story is always there in the black and white pages of Helter Skelter.
Bugliosi also did a remarkable job of describing the titular event. Taken from a Beatles song from the “White Album”, the title also represents what Manson believed that the Beatles were singing directly to him as a vision of a post-apocalyptic race war for which he, Charles Manson, must take responsibility in initiating. It’s bizarre and twisted, but it became the central focus of the prosecution’s case against both Manson and the Family. It was ultimately what put them behind bars.
Although it is not the classic piece of readable literature that In Cold Blood represents to the true crime genre, Helter Skelter is truly the genre’s giant. It is sad that such atrocities of humanity have lead not only to these two books but of the whole true crime trope, but their stories have become immortalised and accessible for future generations hoping to learn of the horrors of history – so that they may never again be repeated.