As an inquisitive reader, I have a tendency to fixate on certain genres. Often a particular subject or an individual writer, exhaustively reading around it before moving on to something else that has piqued my interest.
The majority of what I read is non-fiction. I find reality a lot more interesting than fiction, being drawn towards subjects of people or culture, particularly ‘subcultures’ and people who sit outside of what is considered ‘normal’. But then I suppose nobody wants to read about the most normal, beigest, or mundane characters, do they?
Over the last few years, I’ve found myself reading more and more about a particular type of people: those who have committed the most unthinkable or immoral of acts. I’m interested in the psychology behind these acts; what drives people, who are often previously seen as perfectly ‘normal’ or unremarkable, to commit such acts – it’s the age-old nature versus nurture question that interests me.
Best-selling true crime book of all time
A book along those lines that I read earlier this year is Helter Skelter by Vincent Buglioisi. First published in 1974, it is an account of the murders committed by the Manson Family under the guidance of Charles Manson in Los Angeles in 1969. Helter Skelter is an incredibly detailed examination of the subject, taking us from the initial discovery of the first victims, through the investigation and then the subsequent prosecutions in an almost forensic level of detail.
Being one of the most famous murder cases in American history and having been referenced plenty in popular culture, I already had some knowledge of the subject area, so wasn’t coming to it completely blind. But Helter Skelter took my limited understanding to a completely different level.
The biggest draw of Helter Skelter comes from the fact that Bugliosi was the prosecuting attorney in the trial of Charles Manson and several other members of the Manson Family. He was involved in the case from the beginning pretty much through to conclusion. I’d imagine there are few people who were closer to or have a more detailed knowledge of it, and that really comes across in the level of detail he provides.
“ ‘Charlie said that death was beautiful, because people feared death.’ ”Vincent Buglioisi, Helter Skelter
At times, the level of detail can come across as a bit dry as it can really focus on the process of law or procedure; the detail and repetition have an air of how Bugliosi would have gone through the case in court. However, this is no surprise and it does provide the reader with a real understanding of how the investigation and trials were carried out, which is unlikely to be matched elsewhere.
A unique point of view
There could be a question of whether the author is always completely impartial. There’s the chance that it’s from a slightly biased viewpoint or that he could be using a little bit of bravado to overstate his own importance, but I don’t really get that impression. He clearly shows some disdain towards some of the police for their perceived ineptitudes during the investigation but that isn’t necessarily unwarranted.
As well as providing an immersive insight into the case and his experiences, Bugliosi adds a human touch to his telling of events. There’s a degree of warmth in his portrayal of the victims. He paints them as the real people they were, faults and all, while presenting a pretty balanced view of the perpetrators. He doesn’t make excuses for them but he does try to understand what might have led them to this point, and how one man could convince so many to blindly follow his manifesto and to commit such violence without question and with little remorse afterwards. The reasons may often be absurd or absent, but Buglioisi always asks why.
“It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon”Vincent Buglioisi, Helter Skelter
As well as being drawn to the psychology of the events, I was also drawn to the period of history and the cultural backdrop. I think that’s what makes interest in this story so enduring; it’s so evocative of the 1960s and the death of the hippy dream, with references to counter-culture and direct links to The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Hollywood, and Roman Polanski.
The case has come into focus more lately due to references in Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There has also been a general rise in interest in true crime podcasts and the like. Our interest in the grotesque is seemingly endless.
Helter Skelter isn’t for the faint-hearted and isn’t most people’s idea of good bedtime reading. It’s a heavy subject, often harrowing in the detail and retelling of events. The description of the crimes can be particularly graphic (with photographs of crime scenes also featuring). So if you are easily shocked, Helter Skelter isn’t the book for you. However, if you have an interest in this area, it’s undoubtedly one of the better books I’ve read with a true-crime focus. It is the definitive account of The Manson Family murders.
– Review by Ciaran Downes, CRM Manager
Have you read Helter Skelter? Do you enjoy reading true crime stories? Let us know your thoughts on the subject in the comments below.