Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Time Suck Mini-reviews: True Crime Books and Comics

I'm going through something of a true crime bender. I read Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me while I was in Europe and before I knew it I was reading true crime comics, watching documentaries and listening to podcasts. True crime isn't outside of my interests, but I've never really gone this gung-ho before. So rather than make this a true crime blog for the forseeable future (although I think I'm getting too angry and sad to keep this up much longer) I'm going to squeeze them all into a couple of posts (one for the content I've read, one for the content I viewed), both for my sanity and yours.

What I've Been Reading: 

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule.

This was the book that kicked off this cycle, although in fairness I was probably primed for it by listening to Serial last year. The Stranger Beside Me is the story of Ted Bundy, the man and the murderer. However, as seems to be a bit of a trend for me in the true crime I pick, this book tells the tale of author Ann Rule's relationship with Ted Bundy. Beginning when she was an aspiring writer penning the occasional article for true crime magazines, Ann Rule also worked at a helpline with the young Ted Bundy.  He was (if I recall correctly) about 15 years her junior, but they became close friends almost instantly. As Rule's writing career began to take off and she was hired to write a book about the series of murders that would be tied to Bundy. This connection made it increasingly difficult for Rule once it became clear that Bundy was not only the key suspect but the perpetrator of the 30+ rapes and murders committed across the country. I found Rule's writing to be compelling and her reenactments of the crimes really captured the methodical and sadistic nature of Bundy. However, I actually struggled with the personal element of the book by the end. It seemed to me, based on the accounts in her book, that he was clearly using her because of her connection to the police. While she said they were close, the only personal anecdotes involving interactions outside of work begin after he starts his murders (or around the time of the first murder). So either they weren't as close as she thought and he manipulated her in the same way he manipulated his victims, or she left out some compelling evidence that they were anything more than co-workers who chatted in their downtime on late night shifts. Tne subheading of this book is "the shocking inside story," but Rule is guarded in providing too many personal details, so I don't know that we really get much of an inside story at all. And without any real divulgence of personal details, we also don't get any real introspection about the relationship.  If you're going to make the story personal, make it personal. Otherwise just write a compelling story of Ted Bundy and his crimes - which is already 80% of this book. I also think her personal involvement muddies her perspective somewhat. She struggles to separate the Ted she knew and the Ted who committed the murder and that gives way to a lot of waffling over certain decisions like him breaking out of prison - which to most people is a pretty clear sign of his guilt. She also gets to the end of the book without straight up stating that he is guilty, rather she frames it as he was convicted of the crimes, which to me - coupled with the other way she discusses the case - suggests that she thinks he may be innocent or wrongfully convicted. I think she went through a lot of confusion and mixed emotions about his involvement and subsequent conviction and I think the book would have benefited greatly if she had either fully opened up and made it a personal account of a woman who was friends with a serial killer up until their conviction (she sent him lots of money and letters while he was in jail leading up to the trial) or an objective account of a horrific serial killer.  In the end it flitters a little between the two and is weaker for it.

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story written by Jeff Jensen, illustrated by Jonathan Case. 

Last year I read the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer and really dug the idea of true crime comics. Obviously they aren't going to be as dense with detail and information as a normal true crime novel, but they have the potential to tell a much more personal angle than you typically read in this genre. Green River Killer was a title that came up every time I looked for a follow up to My Friend Dahmer but it wasn't until today that I found a copy. It's written by Jeff Jansen, the son of Tom Jansen - the cop who spent over 20 years on this case. It takes place over several decades, though it is set primarily 2005 when Jansen and several other police officers were stuck in a room interviewing Gary Leon Ridgeway about his murders for a controversial plea deal (he'd get life in prison, no death penalty). Ridgeway had confessed to being the Green River killer, but remained vague and cagey about the details of his crimes. The plea deal meant that he had to give them information about several murders he says he had committed that the police had never uncovered, but when they would take him to the locations he disclosed he'd clam up or only give details that were well known by the public. Was he playing with them or could it be that he wasn't the serial killer he confessed to being? (surprise, he was a killer but he had disassociated from that past 'Gary'). The book flashes back to some of the key murders in Ridgeway's life, such his first attempted murder in 1965 of a young boy, and the murder and bizarre presentation post-mortem of the victim Christine King. But more often than not the book presents the victims of Ridgeway as in flux, hair styles and clothing changing in each sequential frame because to Ridgeway these women held no real importance - there was no real reason for him to remember them. All told, Ridgeway murdered at least 48 women and teenage girls primarily between 1982-1984. Ridgeway picked prostitutes as his victims because they were easy to lure and kill, because he knew society didn't care about them. He would pick up prostitutes and take them either to his house or the woods and if they didn't 'love him right', he would murder them. There is even one occasion depicted in the book where Ridgeway picked up a girl with his son in the car, although it isn't made clear if this was one of the women he killed or one lucky enough to get away. It's also unclear whether Ridgeway continued murdering up until his capture, but if he did he didn't continue at the same rate as his early period in the 1980s. The fact that the book takes place 20 years after that initial period makes for a compelling narrative because we are likely seeing a man who considers his murders the acts of a different version of himself, an earlier Gary. In all of the interviews and encounters he separates himself, while also never denying that he did commit the murders. He talks of it all being so 'long ago' and yet for the police who interview him, the details of his brutality are seared into their memories. This book isn't just about Gary Leon Ridgeway and the Green River murders though. It is also a loving tribute for a son who respects his father and his father's dedication to find answers for the families of the women lost. Aspects of Tom Jensen's own life - his marriage, his police officer re-tests - are juxtaposed against the case investigating the murders and Ridgeway's recollections of the murders. This case, like his marriage, family and the endless renovations on the family home, was his life. And it's surprisingly beautiful to find this tribute entwined among such horror.

Torso written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by Marc Andreyko.

Torso is less the personalised account of a relationship with or connection to a murderer and more a semi-fictionalised retelling of a particularly grisly cold case. It's like a short From Hell in that sense. Taking place in 1930s Cleveland, Torso explores the Torso serial murders amidst the turbulence of Eliot Ness's installment as Safety Director and depression-era America. Ness was a prohibition agent in Chicago, so his arrival in Cleveland is depicted in reflection to the murders, as both shook the police force and public to their core. The murders are horrific, someone decapitated and dismembered at least 12 victims from Cleveland's "shanty town". Much like the Green River Killer, the murderer targeted these people because they were easier to miss, both because of their transient nature and their position in society. The comic follows the popular theory that a Dr. Sweeney (named Mr Sundheim in the comic) but towards the end diverges completely from fact and re-imagines a much more action-packed finale. It's a riveting read but it's also pretty obvious that it isn't based in reality, which conflicts with the earlier portions. One thing the comic did that was really interesting was juxtapose illustration with photos from the time (see above). This makes for an interesting visual. They seem to primarily be photos related cirectly to the case and, in fact, at least one photo used is an actual crime scene photo of one of the victims. It makes it hard to separate from the reality of the situation, that while the comic is interesting and action-packed it is still a retelling of a series of murders which were never solved. Not as consistent as Green River Killer, but an interesting experiment in true crime comics nonetheless. 


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