True crime is having a moment. Calling attention to the fact that true crime is having a moment is also having a moment. It’s too much, too sad and ugly. That’s not for me, I say while scrolling through my horror to-watch list. By the way, I’m happy to report Puppet Master (1989) still holds up. You might even detect an awkward Twin Peaksy vibe, though Puppet Master preceded the show by a year. Ahead of its time.
I make some true crime exceptions. Midnight Assassin, The Murder of the Century and Devil in the White City detail crimes that all occurred prior to or on the cusp of forensic science becoming a thing. In small doses, these books are fascinating. How did they find the guilty if they weren’t tromping around wielding bloody knives? What about the psycho killers who looked normal or worse, attractive?
Recently, I dipped a toe in more modern recent crime with People Who Eat Darkness, reconfirming this stuff is not for me. Nope. Definitely never again. Until I stumbled on late author Michelle McNamara’s True Crime Diary and her excellent book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
Next thing I know, I’m reading more than I ever wanted to know about Ted Bundy. Is this how true crime gets you?
With more than 30 books to her name, Ann Rule is often referred to as the Queen of true crime. The Stranger Beside Me is her first and maybe most famous. What sets this one apart from both her body of work and other books written on Ted Bundy is the author’s personal relationship with him. Long before he was first arrested, they were friends. The two met as volunteers at a Seattle suicide hotline in 1971. Lucky for her, she wasn’t his type.
At the time, Rule was a former police woman supporting her family in part by writing up crime summaries for local police and freelancing for true crime magazines. Bundy was a psychology student. If this story were fiction it couldn’t be more contrived.
We go right into one of Bundy’s most dangerous traits: his appeal. Rule’s first impressions of Bundy were all positive. Obviously she wrote this book in hindsight. You can almost feel the author looking for red flags her cop radar somehow missed while they were working phones together late into the night. Instead she describes him as attractive, intelligent and charismatic.
The later edition I read included several additions where Rule revises this depiction. She expresses regret at overstating his attributes, perhaps inadvertently feeding into the frenzy of fan mail and females lining up to give the serial killer bedroom eyes during the trial. A common criticism of the book is that the author was too close to him, but her point was that not all killers look like killers. There’s an ick factor in the author’s remembered fondness, but it comes across honestly and illustrates the effectiveness of Bundy’s well practiced duality.
If you like true crime, you’ve probably already read this book. If you’re tiptoeing around like me, I recommend reading it fast and then go plant a flower or hike somewhere pretty. Do something to shake it off the heaviness. Bundy confessed to murdering more than 30 women, though many believe his victims number much higher. His known crimes spanned Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado and Florida, where he was caught and later executed. The author’s later revisions include a few graphic details of the crimes in an effort to cool any sympathy for Bundy her earliest editions may have generated.
Rule’s firsthand account is compelling and thoughtful. She delivers on the book’s promise and shares the magnitude of one particularly devastating missed opportunity. After a series of women go missing in the Pacific Northwest, one woman escaped with a close call. She was able to give police a detailed description of the man’s face, the car he tried to lure her into and a name, Ted. On noticing the similarity of the police sketch to the friend she used to volunteer with, also named Ted, Rule called a friend on the force. She didn’t actively suspect him, but it was enough of a coincidence to throw his name in the hat. She pointed cops to Ted Bundy. The face matched, he even drove the same kind of car as their suspect and yet that’s as far as the lead was followed. It was a big hat full of thousands of leads. This fact haunts the rest of the book as many more brutal murders followed.
That’s it for me with the true crime. No more. I spent some time recently on a looong car ride with a true crime addict. Guess what kind of podcasts I got to listen to? She says she loves true crime because it makes her feel more prepared. These bad things happened to innocent people and we should know what they went through. Wouldn’t you want someone to know what happened if it was you?
That was a fun question to ponder on the parkway.
Me, I’d rather make a thrilling web series about crocheting a calendar blanket whilst watching Puppet Master. Turn it into a Netflix show. Then we’re rich. Boom. Three-month plan. No more true crime.