Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson

 

Nothing quite warms you up during the holiday season like a nice fire, a cup of hot chocolate, and a good book about some of the most brutal murders in the 20th century.

Yes, some of us have a slightly different idea of what constitutes good leisure time. Or maybe this is just more appropriate Festivus reading than Christmas reading. But who really cares, anyway. A good book is a good book. I must say, despite never having read any other books about Charles Manson, I really don’t feel the need to read any others after this. Jeff Guinn is a truly engaging writer, and the 60s really come alive in this story of death and delusion.

I found that actually to be one of the most compelling parts of the book. We can always get a much better grasp on people’s thoughts and actions when we have an understanding of what was going on in the world around them, and thanks to far more than just these murders themselves, the 60s were an incredibly turbulent time in history. Without going off on long tangents that feel irrelevant to the main point, here we can become fully immersed in the atmosphere of the time, warts and all. Whether you lived through a certain period or not, there’s a real tendency to romanticize and look back on times past as being idyllic, better than the time we’re living in now. The 60s in particular can really fall victim to this, as we envision Woodstock, peace and love, and a virtually unlimited supply of weed. How could such an environment possibly spawn such a dark dude? But there’s no nostalgia here, only raw, honest truth. This is one of those books that take you on a mental road trip back in time, but doesn’t bore you with tours about shit you don’t care about.

This fair and well-rounded approach isn’t exclusive to the 60s, but also to Manson himself. I’m not saying that the book is sympathetic to him. That would be insane. But Guinn does do what he can to explain just how such a person could grow up to become what he did. The amount of research this involves is impressive, but the book is never bogged down by dry facts. We almost want to feel sorry for the guy, at least when he was still a kid. His life was far from easy. But when it really comes down to it, nothing is an excuse. There are of course innumerable people who have had it worse and didn’t turn out to be bad people at all, and really, Manson seems like the kind of person who was just plain born bad. Disappointed as they were, his family from what we can tell didn’t seem all that surprised to hear of what he had done.

The big question for me then, is what Manson himself truly believed. He spent a lot of time telling other people what to believe, including that he was the second coming of Jesus, but did he know it was all bullshit, or was he really just that delusional? The answer doesn’t seem to be found here, and maybe it’s something we’re just not meant to know. It’s a mystery that will ensure as long as the memory of those horrible crimes.

Rather just see the movie? Check out Helter Skelter.

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In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s famous “non-fiction novel” is far more famous than the murder it’s about, that of four members of the Clutter family in 1959, in Holcomb, Kansas. I’m fairly sure that this is the most famous True Crime book out there, and this combination of dark and classic reading was what made me want to pick it up. Now maybe it’s because of the year it was published. 1965, but I found this book to be surprisingly non-graphic, even relaxing, though “light” wouldn’t be accurate. That’s a weird assessment, isn’t it? But while it does of course delve into the details of the murder itself, most of the book is focused on the activities of the small town, friends and neighbors of the Clutters, and the two killers after the murders have occurred. This is not a whodunit – We know from the moment we’re introduced to Dick and Perry that these are the dudes everybody is looking for. The real vehicle for suspense then is in how long it will take for these two to get caught, and how will they finally be discovered. These guys hitchhike, laze around in Mexico, and flash back to their childhoods as we drift along with them, all the while wondering where it all went wrong that they turned out to be so very cold. “Cold” is perfect here, because the murders aren’t committed out of any anger or hate. The victims died simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – their own home in the middle of the night – while the robbery of their home was being committed. They would have been witnesses, and the goal in the robbery was to leave none.

Truman Capote spent a huge amount of time doing the research for this book, interviewing the local residents about how the book’s events all played out, accompanied by his good friend Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird). In fact he even spent time speaking with the killers themselves before their eventual execution in 1965, before the book’s publication. Capote’s notes for the book amounted to 8,000 pages, and you have to admire that kind of hard work. A more well-researched and accurate account of these murders simply can’t be imagined, and this could be why the book so outshines its subject. As an introduction to the genre I have to recommend this book,particularly if you’re currently a reader of fiction, as this will be a seamless transition. If it weren’t for the enormous number of facts I suppose it would be fairly easy for the ignorant reader to assume that this was an ordinary novel, for the both the writing style and for the depth that it succeeds in taking us into the characters’ minds. As it creeps teasingly towards the end and the outcomes you know are coming, the suspense is positively juicy. Before I knew it it was 4am and I still wasn’t ready to put it down. This book is in fact a masterpiece, though that must be distinguished separately from books that we may find more dark and shocking. This isn’t something you read just for the shock value. This is quality, and if you appreciate it as such then you’ll probably come out of it very satisfied, as I did. If, on the other hand, you want all the gory details and would prefer to just watch the movie, I warn you that you may be somewhat disappointed. Check out Bea’s review of the 1967 movie adaptation here.

Other recommended reads: The Night the Defeos Died, Severed: The true story of the Black Dahlia.

The Night the DeFeos Died

Short review today, so you’ll thank me for quickly letting you get on with your reading. Considering this book is true crime, I can’t write this review in my new format, because spoilers. But let me just say, Holy  drama, Batman. This book is nuts you guys. This totally blows the lid off everything you thought you knew about the murders which started the legend of The Amityville Horror. You’ll probably even have a hard time believing it at first. But Ric Osuna has most definitely done his research, integrity seems paramount to him, and this book touches upon all levels of the story. If you like true crime, horror, or anything in between, this is a must-read. It’s anything but boring.