On Ann Rule: A Personal Tribute to a True Crime Trailblazer

With the news that true crime writer Ann Rule has just passed away, I couldn't help reflecting on my own late conversion to the author and wishing that I had somehow discovered her earlier. A true crime devotee myself, I picked up my first Rule book--ironically the Rule Book on True Crime-- only a year ago, and here's what I made of it back then, in a personal blog I wrote.

I'm reposting it here today as a tribute to a trailblazer.

September 2014

"I seem to have developed the True Crime bug, big time, and have found myself creeped out for days now reading The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule (Pocket Books; reprint 2008).

This book is considered the blueprint for true crime, the bible for all true crime writers, and yet when Ann Rule wrote it she was a total novice. While she had once been a police officer and had written extensively on crime for various detective magazines, she had never written a book before.

But that's not the stunning part about it.

What is truly incredible about this story--and why I guess it broke all the rules and became the template for both true crime and immersion writing--is that Rule had no idea, as she embarked on the story, that she not only knew the murderer, she was his friend.

Soon after being commissioned to write about a dreadful series of murders across America involving scores of beautiful young women who were brutally attacked, she came to realize that the leading suspect in the cases, indeed the only suspect, was a man she had befriended while working in a crisis centre. A man she genuinely liked!

It was, of course, the infamous Ted Bundy, a name that still sends shivers down women's spines 40 years later.

Bundy was a monster like no other.

He confessed, albeit indirectly, to more than 35 murders, each one horrendously degrading, the kind that gives you nightmares. And Rule was on his speed dial.

It's incredible stuff. Even more incredibly, Rule didn't hang up the phone and run as I probably would. She didn't balk at writing the book once Bundy was arrested, nor did she hesitate to remain in contact with that monster throughout his incarceration, taking his calls, returning his letters and even sending regular checks to help pay for his smokes in jail.

I don't believe she did that for the sake of the book.

Not at all. It was not a marketing ploy. Judging from the tone of her book, she genuinely liked this man and wasn't afraid to admit it! She couldn't quite believe at first that he could do such monstrous things. When she finally had to accept this truth, she still felt a certan empathy for him which may seem bizarre to the average person, but which is very brave and honest of her to admit.

This book does what I think Virginia Peters tries to accomplish in her more recently released true crime story Have You Seen Simone? (Penguin; 2014). Peters' book focuses on an unsolved murder in small-town Australia and, I believe, fails where Rule, well, rules. While Peters thrusts herself into the story in a clumsy, almost apologetic way and attempts to somehow befriend or at least engage the alleged murderer, she just can't pull it off.

Rule walks the fine line brilliantly.

The Stranger Beside Me takes its readers through the nitty-gritty of a true crime--or 35 of them, in fact, so it's not just gritty, it's gruelling--while also revealing a surprising friendship and a first-hand insight into a murderer's mind. Rule balances her friendship and the truth with such applomb. It really is an incredible feat and has been worth every jittery turn of the page.

While I have not enjoyed the book--how could anyone enjoy such horror?--I did find it gripping and was mesmerized by the words of an innocent writer caught in the middle of an ugly period in American history. Unlike Peters, this really is as much about Rule as it is about Bundy. Yet we never feel that Rule believes that. She certainly never takes over the story or makes it about herself. She is just there, stuck in the middle, and we are stuck right alongside her.

It's no wonder, as Rule says at the start of this reprint (one of many reprints over the decades), people still contact her about the book all these years later. She went on to write scores of other books, but this is the one that haunts all who come across it.

And still haunts her to this day."

Perhaps now, with Rule's passing, she can finally put it to rest.