September 30, 2011

Book Review: HELTER SKELTER by Vincent Bugliosi

BOOK DESCRIPTION:  Prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi held a unique insider's position in one of the most baffling and horrifying cases of the twentieth century: the cold-blooded Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by Charles Manson and four of his followers. What motivated Manson in his seemingly mindless selection of victims, and what was his hold over the young women who obeyed his orders? Here is the gripping story of this famous and haunting crime. 

Helter Skelter is, quite frankly, the go-to book on true crime, the granddaddy of the genre and arguably the best true crime book written.   It's a "must read" for any reader who appreciates the true crime genre or a reader looking to explore the genre.   This was the first true crime book I read (at age 11, no less) and started a lifelong addiction, if you will, of the genre.

It gives you fair warning when opening its cover. It tells you that you are about to have the hell scared out of you. And it's not kidding. 

Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi wrote this classic back in 1974 and even after nearly 40 years, it remains as strong, fresh and frightening as the day it came off the presses.  The book is a hefty one (over 700 pages) and therefore not for those easily scared away by heft and dissects not only the crimes, but also Charles Manson's background and the self-proclaimed Family's various travels and journeys, including run-ins with the law prior to the infamous nights in question. 

The murder nights are covered, with Bugliosi squeezing every drop of the victim's terror as well as the killers' numbing indifference and blood lust.  This book definitely is not for the weak of heart when it comes to true crime.   Trust me when I tell you that if you choose to read this book in the dead of night you might hear an entire variety of creaks and noises you never noticed before and you might find that your heart is pounding a little harder and louder than usual.  

The trial is also covered, which could be in excruciating detail for some, given that the trial at the time was the most lengthy criminal trial to take place in California.  Bugliosi also covers other murders, generally thought to be committed by Manson and his followers, as well as the defense attorney who went missing during the trial.  

The writing is top notch and despite its overall length, true crime affecionados won't feel fatigued from the sheer number of pages.  I cannot guarantee, however, that you won't feel fatigued by reading of the Manson Family's violence and communal living.   The book is powerful and extremely intense.  

Sadly, while the victims are given a supporting role of sorts in Helter Skelter, the killers themselves are the stars.  As is the case in most true crime accountings, the victims are somewhat lost in the shuffle of the glorification of violence.  

Helter Skelter does, however, give a sharp and well written account of the criminal justice system (at least of the early 70s) and the remarkable verdicts that Vincent Bugliosi was able to get, particularly against Charles Manson himself.  New versions of the book include updates.   

Even with the glorification of violence today, Helter Skelter remains a true story that is so frightening because it could have happened anywhere, to anyone. 

Read this excellent account, but be sure that the lights are on and all the doors and windows are locked.  Because you never know who might be lurking outside.

Helter Skelter is available for purchase at major booksellers now, including Amazon.   I am an Amazon affiliate.  If you make a purchase through my link, I will receive a small commission.

FTC Disclosure:   This book came from my own personal collection.  I was neither compensated nor paid in any way for this review. 


Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

As a teenager, I opened this book up, read the first line of it scaring the hell out of me, completely believed the warning, and put the book away. As an adult, I don't know if I can read it still, even though I do read true crime every now and again.

I agree with your statement that with most true crime, the criminals themselves become the feature, and the victims are lost in the shuffle of it all.

Lori Johnston said...

Hi Natalie, thanks for your comment!

I think Helter Skelter is so scary because the victims were chosen at random, the crimes were extremely brutal and the killers seemed so removed from what they did. Despite its unsettling nature, it's a fantastically written book and most definitely worth the read.

Lee Ann Howlett - Audiobook Narrator said...

Lori, I agree -- a beautifully written book that I couldn't put down the first time I read it. Frankly, I think it's as good as Capote's In Cold Blood.

Scared me to death, too. I would read it early in the day so that I had time to forget some of it before going to sleep.

Lori Johnston said...

Hi ClaireLA,

Thanks for your comment. "Helter Skelter" is a scary book - - too scary and crazy to be fiction. I think it's a much better written book than "In Cold Blood" but I have never been a fan of "ICB".

Happy Monday!