Archives for category: true crime

The Stranger Beside MeThe Stranger Beside Me was recommended to me by a friend during a discussion of the true crime genre. I’d read In Cold Blood and found it compelling and fascinating. I had also recently finished Poe Ballantine’s wonderful pseudo-true crime/memoir, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. It’s a genre I feel strangely drawn to. So, despite it feeling almost illicit, I thought I’d give The Stranger Beside Me a go. Prior to reading I knew of Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer, but none of the details.

Ann Rule is a former police officer turned true crime writer. She first met a young Ted Bundy when they were working for a suicide hotline together. Ann was already writing true crime stories for magazines but had yet to have a book published. Bundy’s crimes proved to be her big break. As news broke of a serial murderer on the loose, Ann was commissioned to write a book detailing the case. Then, as Ted Bundy became the prime suspect, she found herself in the guilt-ridden/fortuitous position of writing about her close friend. As for details of Bundy’s crimes, if you’re as ignorant as I was, suffice it to say he rapes and brutally murders a number of young women, in several states across America.

I had a feeling The Stranger Beside Me would be slightly trashy (especially given the ‘I was friends with a serial killer’ angle) but it’s really very measured. I’d say it’s not really narrative non-fiction. Rule is all about the facts. She tells the story from her own perspective and the perspective of the missing girls, but only details their lives leading up to their murders. Rule doesn’t go in for recreating grisly scenes that no one was witness to. But she is all about the facts, and those facts, even plainly told, are plenty grisly.

Here’s a taste of Rule’s minutiae-filled style:

The old frame duplex at 431 Dunwoody Street was approximately eight blocks from the Chi Omega House, closer as the crow flies. Two-tenths of a mile. It was typical of many of the twenties-vintage structures bordering the campus proper which had been turned into rental housing – nothing fancy, but adequate. There were two “shotgun” apartments at 431 Dunwoody. Debbie Ciccarelli and Nancy Young lived in A, and Cheryl Thomas lived in B. Each apartment opened onto a common screened front porch with a single door, but the duplexes had separate entries – entries leading into a living room, a bedroom, and, in the rear, a kitchen. They shared a central wall, and when the place had been remodelled into two units, nobody had been much concerned with insulation against noise.

Despite Ann Rule’s friendship with one of America’s most notorious serial killers I’d say that the fictional style of In Cold Blood makes it the more terrifying and salacious. I’m not really sold on The Stranger Beside Me’s artistic merit (the writing is fairly workmanlike), but it is fascinating to get an inside look at how law enforcement works and there’s no denying Ann Rule had a unique view of the proceedings.

Not only was Ted Bundy renowned for his good looks, he was intelligent and exceptionally charming. However, I found his writing (of which Rule includes many, perhaps too many, extracts) so pompous and overly earnest it’s hard to believe that every person he met wasn’t simultaneously creeped out and irritated by him. Even Rule’s most generous descriptions of her caring friend Ted don’t sound like anyone I’d want to befriend. But it was this supposedly undeniable charisma that allowed Ted Bundy to escape from police custody twice. Despite the realisation that Bundy must be guilty of the crimes he was suspected of, authorities didn’t take him seriously as a dangerous criminal. His guards were seemingly able to compartmentalise the theoretical ‘Ted’ who murdered women and the smart, friendly man in their jail.

Despite Rule’s inclusion of excerpts from Ted’s letters, poems and his conversations with her, I wouldn’t say her aim is to get inside the mind of a killer. She makes little judgement, instead focusing on her own conflicting thoughts about Ted’s guilt and comments on Ted’s mental state in the moment – depressed or withdrawn or angry or eager to get justice. After Rule has recounted Bundy’s final trial in Florida she tries her hand at analysing why Ted murdered all those women. Perhaps he has antisocial personality disorder or is a sociopath, or maybe he is symbolically killing Stephanie (the rich, beautiful girl who rejected him) over and over.

The Stranger Beside Me has various ‘endings’ tacked on to the original. The first edition ends in 1980, then 1986 (when it looks as if Bundy will finally be executed), then 1989, a 2000 update, and my copy begins with a 2008 addition. It all gets a bit tired. The extra information isn’t that necessary. From a narrative standpoint The Stranger Beside Me could have benefitted from a simple postscript mentioning when Bundy was finally executed and a portion detailing his confession. In her various add-ons Rule writes at length of accounts of women who believe they had a close encounter with Ted Bundy, even though she admits herself that, while these women may have had reason to fear for their lives, in many cases the perpetrator was unlikely to have been Bundy. And so, I ask, if these incidents are unlikely to have anything to do with the case, why are they in the book?

The Stranger Beside Me is worthwhile because of its strange and devastating subject matter but, at least in this early point of her book career, I don’t know that Ann Rule was much of a writer. Rule was trying so very hard for the ‘you can never really know a person slant’ that she spends the majority of the book vacillating between ‘the evidence says Ted must be guilty’ and ‘the man I knew couldn’t possibly be guilty of such heinous crimes’. Sometimes it felt like calculated naivety for Rule to think that a friend would be unable to hide their true nature. Her relationship with Ted Bundy gave her insights other writers lacked but I can’t help but feel if Ann Rule had been able to remove herself somewhat from the narrative she could have done more with such potent material.

Love and TerrorPoe Ballantine’s memoir takes up his life story having recently returned from Mexico with his young Mexican girlfriend, Cristina. The two settle in the small town of Chadron, Nebraska (where Poe lived once before during his itinerant years) and get married. Before long they have a son, Tom. Tom is labelled as autistic, exhibiting slow verbal development, repetitive and ritual behaviours, and advanced facility with numbers and numerical concepts.

Before long, there’s trouble in Poe’s marriage, he and Cristina are fighting constantly. Poe wants to believe that their problems are caused by Cristina coming to terms with living in the US – having to learn English (understanding jokes is the last thing you learn in another language, which is especially hard on Ballantine, a funny man with a wife who couldn’t understand that he was funny), and making minimum wage as a cleaner despite having been a dentist in Mexico. Once she acclimatises they’ll be happy, or so Poe tells himself. But Cristina came to America with Ballantine imagining that all Americans are rich and successful. Poe, a writer and wanderer, was poor, and as he tells it, a disappointment to Cristina.

Then Poe’s neighbour Steven Haataja (pronounced Hah-de-ya) goes missing. Did he skip town? Commit suicide? Was he murdered? Ninety-five days later his body is discovered on a property near the university campus, burned beyond recognition, tied to a tree. At the time Ballantine was trying, and failing, to come up with an idea for his next book. Then it struck him, he knows everyone in Chadron, he knew Steven, he should write about Steve’s disappearance. I guess a part of every writer wants their very own In Cold Blood moment. So the strange disappearance of Steven Haataja ostensibly serves as the plot of Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. But I wouldn’t read Poe Ballantine’s book if you’re looking to find out exactly what happened to Steve, a tragically curious death that will likely remain a mystery. Much of Poe’s investigation involves navigating police incompetence, and local characters’ endless speculation based on the paltry facts available. But it remains a fascinating portrait of a town in crisis.

His memoir is just as much about his quest to save his marriage while raising a supposedly autistic child. Poe doesn’t really believe Tom is autistic, just a unique, curious, late bloomer. He questions whether there is anything to be gained by thinking that a child like Tom is autistic? He will always be different, and yet surely some people are different without having a condition. Ballantine takes comfort in stories of friends and acquaintances in which someone’s child was originally diagnosed autistic by alarmist medical professionals because he had, for instance, ‘delayed language, a high IQ, and would eat nothing but lentils’ and then nothing came of it.

Love & Terror is also a beautiful portrait of quirky, small town life. For someone who has spent much of his life resisting a permanent home or family Poe Ballantine’s love for his fellow townspeople and his generous heart are apparent on every page. Ballantine’s writing has an exceptional wit and soulfulness. He writes accessible, genuine poetry. Poe writes, to Cristina ‘My past was so wild it appeared to have been lived by Peter Pan sniffing airplane glue.’ If that line doesn’t bring a smile to your face then perhaps Love & Terror isn’t for you. It’s a quiet and understated book. Even the most passionate fights between Poe and Cristina are written without histrionics, without ego.

After reading Ballantine’s memoir for a bit I got the impression he could write about nothing more than buying groceries and it would somehow be funny, irreverent and touching. It is Poe Ballantine’s writing that makes Love &Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere so special. It’s just a pleasure to spend time in his sincere, thoughtful and self-deprecating company.