The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy (The Shocking Inside Story) by Ann Rule

The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy (The Shocking Inside Story), Ann Rule, Signet, 1981

4 Stars

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book – The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

On my Goodreads account I filed The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy (The Shocking Inside Story) under my “so bad it’s good” and “unintentionally hilarious” shelves. Without a proper review to qualify the categorization, it occurred to me perhaps people might misconstrue my reasoning.

The all-too-real crime of a depraved serial killer who raped and murdered countless defenseless females was not what “amused” me, for lack of a better word. Author Ann Rule’s defensive narration of her relationship with the murderous Bundy was akin to watching the Hindenburg burn up or Titanic go down. It made for quite a spectacle.

Ted Bundy

As a GenXer, I’ve heard of Ted Bundy for most of my life. I remember his execution in 1989 when they showed his dead body in the media. Tabloid news TV and the daytime talk shows were obsessed with Bundy and his depraved murders. Perhaps it was his well-mannered appearance in contrast to his heinous actions, but the Bundy killings made for a strangely fascinating tale.

True crime author Ann Rule built her reputation on Ted Bundy. Rule was his friend and co-worker. They worked together at a crisis hotline center. To her, he was a handsome, hard-working, sensitive, up-and-comer. As a writer who penned detective stories and worked with the police department, she could not see what was before her. Bundy a narcissistic sociopath who preyed upon innocent women.

Everybody knows the tale of Ted Bundy. He’s as notable a character to 20th-century American culture as Jack the Ripper is to the British Victorian Era.

The parents who raised him for the formative years of his life were, in actuality, his grandmother and grandfather. Bundy’s true mother his elder sister. Born outside of marriage, he spent the first months of infancy in an orphanage. Ted’s grandfather was abusive to him, yet Ted looked up to as him as his lone source of male authority. When Ted was older, he moved to live with his mother and her new husband, who adopted Ted as his son.

Ann and Ted, Friends

Ted was a respectable-seeming guy, a college student at the University of Washington who was majoring in psychology when Rule met Bundy. Rule was a decade older than Ted and found him charming. She trusted him so much she let her children play with him.

Rule goes on at length in her book about how she wasn’t sexually attracted to Ted. Sure, sure. Ok, so maybe her feelings were wholly platonic and she just saw Ted as a kid brother. Whatever it was, she was drawn to him and liked him.

Rule makes a big deal about her friendship with Ted. However, she only knew him for a couple of years. Of course, during part of those years, he was abducting women, butchering them, and violating their corpses.

Later, Rule writes how she never knew the real Ted Bundy. They were just casual friends. He seemed nice, so she had taken him under her maternal wing. Eventually, like many in friendships, they lost contact.

But Ann never forgot about him.

The True Crime Writer and the Killer

After Bundy was arrested for murder, the two wrote and called each other. Ted insisted on his innocence, and Ann listened to his denials. Rule believed him so much she sent him money for his defense. When Bundy escaped from prison and there was a nationwide manhunt for him, Bundy sent her letters, still proclaiming his innocence.

Even his final murderous spree in Florida where he killed a young girl, did not fully dissuade Rule about his guilt. Only after being confronted with genuine forensic evidence in a court of law, could the “savvy” writer of detective stories concede the man she considered a friend was a monster.

Conclusion

The Stranger Beside Me was an enlightening source of insight into the life and crimes of Ted Bundy. But it was even more so for the Ann Rule, who used this to catapult her career.

Denial ain’t just a river.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, Broadway Books, 2012

Spoiler Alert ⚠

5 Stars

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Book – Gone Girl

July 2013 was a difficult month.

I had ordered Gone Girl for beach reading on a very rare family vacation. I hadn’t been out of the country for 12 years and was looking forward to it. The book didn’t arrive in time, so I lay in the sun for hours without a summer blockbuster to enjoy. While the food, beaches, and people of Nassau were wonderful, due to various reasons I came back from the trip in bad spirits. And there, waiting in my mailbox was Gone Girl, a work of fiction to befriend me in my time of illness and self-pity. It became a twisted friend, one that fed upon my sickness and bad feelings.

Spending so much time in the heat was not the smartest thing to do for someone with lupus. A massive flare-up occurred, with a fever registering at 105.5˚F. Much worse, despite the many visits to the vet, my sweet little English bull terrier was suffering from a terminal illness. I couldn’t move out of bed to care for her properly. Plus, there were family matters to deal with that were unsettling. (In retrospect, those issues were trivial, but being sick with my beloved doggie dying didn’t make for rational thoughts). I was angry at everything: my body, my family, and the vets. I couldn’t do anything but lie there a dizzying fog, where occasional moments of lucidity and strength allowed me to flip the pages and read.

Gone Girl fed that dark place inside me with even more darkness. At the time, I was not in a state to process it in the right perspective.

The plot appears simple. A wife goes missing. The clues left behind can mean only one thing: someone killed her. The person most likely to have done it was the husband, Nick. A media firestorm ensues as the search for wife Amy leads to startling revelations about a seemingly perfect marriage.

Alternating with Nick’s narration are entries from the Amy’s diary, giving us an insight into the marriage before the disappearance. We are fed little bits of information, piece by piece at a time, molding the reader’s opinion like potter’s clay. Then events then take an odd turn and we see our perspective has been skewed all along. What we are told is not always true. Gillian Flynn created a warped, revolting world about two people so horrible that they destroyed everything in their path because they were selfish fucks.

Which horrible person do we root for? The side you pick may say something about you, something disturbing.

I’m ok with that. No doubt about it, I’m on Team Disturbed.

Here Be Spoilers & Rants

First of all I loved Amy. I know she is a horrible person and in real life I would run away from anyone who was 1/10th as crazy as she was. But as a character, she had me rooting for her 100%. Yeah, she was evil, but so is Hannibal Lecter and readers, moviegoers, and TV-watchers root for him. Why doesn’t Amy get any love? Those wheels in her mechanical brain were always turning. Even when things didn’t work out as planned, she always kept rolling and going on to something new. What she did to Nick was a wicked thing, to set him up for her murder, hoping he’d get the death penalty. Regardless, it was she who drew me into the story, not Nick.

I am satisfied that at she got her “happy” ending, as messed up as it was. If you watched “Breaking Bad” and loved Walter White even at his most evil, then you might find Amy sympathetic. Then again, maybe not. One could argue Walter had legitimate reasons to down a dark path, although it was his ego that kept him on it. Amy was always ego, a broken human being who wasn’t truly a person, just whatever persona she decided to put on. God, I loved her.

On the other hand, I loathed Nick. I hated his fake good guy identity. He was a liar, a thief, and a cheat. If Amy was a sociopath, Nick was a narcissist. He walked through life with his good looks and expected women to take care of him. Unlike Amy he did become self-aware and own up to his flaws, but it wasn’t enough to turn him into a good guy hero. Nick was perfectly content to have his sister pick up the slack at work, his wife pay for his bills, and his mistress take care of his sexual and emotional needs. Plus he was dumb, a fatal flaw in a character.

Nick takes his wife’s money to start his dream bar in his sleepy home town, far from their life in New York. He gets do what he wants and live his life while Amy sits home and waits for life to happen. Screw that. He’s no hero.

Then again, Amy’s certainly no heroine.

On the scale of evil, she’s far worse than Nick. Amy is a liar, a psychopath, a stalker, a killer. She frames innocent people for crimes and delights in ruining peoples’ lives. She is beyond redemption. Nick is merely a scummy, mooching adulterer. He pales in comparison.

Despite that, Amy’s entertaining as hell and fun. She’s so crazy that even in my sick haze, I kept reading to see what she would do next. Her “Cool Girl” rant is one off the most enjoyable passages I’ve ever read in modern books. It had me nodding, “Hell yes!”

Opinion of Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn excels at characterization. She never writes about good people. In her books all the people are different levels of suck. You wouldn’t want anything to do with these slimy, twisted characters (Save for Go, Nick’s sister, the only “sinless” character in this book. And the baby, of course!)

Nick and Amy are both the protagonists and antagonists; both are villains in a story with no heroes. Many readers hated the ending, thinking the bad guy got away with it all, but I liked it. It’s a perfectly perverse conclusion for a perverse romance. Although it was a bit rushed (a commonality among Flynn’s endings).

The concept of how people forge intimate bonds with media images of beautiful crime victims while demonizing the suspects is depicted in Gone Girl with perfect, biting satire. Flynn’s books deal with sharp themes on what it means to be a “man” or “woman.” She is by far the most entertaining, insightful, and well-written author of the recent popular-phenom books I’ve read, blowing away those over-praised duds by silly Dan Brown and humorless Stieg Larsson.

Of her three novels so far, Gone Girl is my favorite, which is saying something, as her other two other books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, were incredible dark reads. I anxiously await Flynn’s next book. It can’t come soon enough!

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins, Riverhead, 2015

SPOILER ALERT ⚠

2.5 Stars

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Book – The Girl on the Train

Everyone at some point in their life has fallen into despair. Perhaps we have all experienced a moment where we want to lapse into oblivion and forget everything awful that ever occurred. When there is no hope, there can only be a dark, deadly, void.

From the moment I picked up Paulina Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, the main character intrigued me. Here is a woman, Rachel, an alcoholic divorcee, unemployed and unable to have children. She is prone to blackouts and has deep psychological issues. Her husband, Tom, left her for sexy Anna, a younger woman, with whom he has a baby. Now the new happy couple lives in Rachel’s old house, a house she passes every day as rides the train into London, to a job which she no longer has.

Just a few houses down from her old home lives another couple: a young, beautiful pair, into whom Rachel puts all her feelings of hope. Now here is a truly happy couple. She doesn’t know their names, so she builds a life for them in her own head: a perfect life, calling them Jess and Jason.

But then Jess goes missing. Where did she go? What happened?

Little by little, ugly truths are revealed. Jess’s real name is Megan and her husband’s is Scott. Everyone in the book is a suspect, especially Scott, Rachel, and even a ham-handedly placed “red-herring.”

An Imitation of a Better Book?

This book has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and it should, for there are similarities.

–The word “Girl” is in the title.

–A supposedly perfect married couple and a blonde, possibly pregnant, wife goes missing and the husband is accused.

–There are crime groupies (In this case, it’s the main character).

–Use of first-person-present tense and unreliable narration that alternates from character to character to add a sense of confusion.

–A supposed critique of upper-middle-class marriages.

But while Flynn’s writing is gleefully over-the-top, her characterization rapier-sharp and spot on, The Girl on the Train is self-indulgently mopey. At first I felt so bad for Rachel, a woman callously screwed over by life. But does she shake herself off, say “Eff you haters!” and make things better for herself? No. She just whines and drinks and sulks. And while she has every reason to be angry with life, at a certain point it’s just too much! She makes for a very unlikeable character, and not in a good way.

That is the major difference between Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. While Amy is irrefutably an evil, messed-up person, she takes control. Shit happened to her, but she is no victim. She will rule her life by any means necessary. Psycho stuff, for sure, but hell of an entertaining read. Perhaps Amy is not the perfect ideal of feminism, but she is a not someone who lets people screw her over. Rachel is just a sad-sack of misery, she should have just left town and moved on. I’m not an encourager of suicide, and Rachel was leading down that path, so it’s no fun to watch.

Weak Female Characters

Actually, in “The Girl on the Train” every woman is just there, saying, “Woe-is me! There’s nothing I can do about life, but pout and pine or do really stupid things and make it worse.”

Woman A: “My life sucks. It’s my ex-husband’s fault. Why did he make me so unhappy?”

Woman B: “My life sucks. It’s my husband’s fault. Why can’t he make me happy?”

Woman C: “My life is starting to suck. I’ll wait for my husband to do something about it and if he doesn’t, then I will…Maybe. But I’ll give him lots of chances first.”

The one character I felt awful for was Scott, the missing girl’s husband. 

If male-imposed misogyny was the theme of this book, then it failed. There was only one male who was a real woman-hater in this. The rest of the women-haters were the women themselves.

This book was popular enough with readers to become a motion picture.

I was conflicted about it. The ending is a major reason why.

Spoilers Ahead

The first half of this book is quite entertaining, with the plot zig-zagging and coiling to keep you guessing. But halfway through, the first mystery is revealed, and now instead of wondering what happened, it’s all about who did it.

I expected a twisted, dark ending, something on a par with Susanna Moore’s In the Cut. After a month of reading Agatha Christie, I was in the mood for a modern murder mystery with shocking revelations.

However, the ending was so predictable. The villain just sits there and does that “Let me tell you what I did and exactly how I did it” routine that just annoys me.

The crime is “solved” and the killer is dispatched.

I thought it would have been a perfect set up to have Rachel sent to prison for Megan’s murder. There Rachel is, standing before a stopped train that is filled with bored commuters looking on as she stabs her ex-husband in the neck in front of his shocked wife.

The way Anna was written, it would have made sense if she accused Rachel of being the killer. Anna had tons of documentation of Rachel’s drunken harassment and stalking. With a little bit of ingenuity, the real killer would have gotten away with it, albeit still dead. And poor Rachel would have suffered the consequences. Now that would have been an ending. 

Opinion of Girl on the Train

I listened to this mostly on audio while also reading it on the Kindle. Perhaps it was the soothing British accents that made this book tolerable instead of a wall banger. It’s one of those bestsellers that everyone is reading, and might even be a major motion picture in a couple of years.

To a certain extent I liked it, at least the premise, but there were many problems with the execution, so it’s a mixed rating.

American Desperado by Jon Roberts and Evan Wright

American Desperado, Frank Jon Roberts and Evan Wright, Crown, 2011

4.5 Stars

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A Very Evil Man

American Desperado is the story of Jon Roberts’ life as told to author Evan Wright. Just who was Jon Roberts?

He was an orphan, a kid who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, small-time hood, a Vietnam Veteran, a thief, a Mafia associate, a prominent NYC discotheque owner, a drug dealer, a racehorse aficionado and, most importantly, a prosperous businessman who was one of the most successful American importers of all time.

Of cocaine.

And by his own admission, a very evil man.

Reading this memoir of Roberts’ life, one might be fooled into thinking he’s not all that evil. He’s charming, funny, and a capable raconteur. His stories will either have you laughing, reeling in shock, or totally engrossed. His life story is entertaining as hell, having lived more in his 63 years on Earth than a dozen random people combined.

But don’t fall prey to his two-faced nature. Roberts was extravagantly generous to his many, many girlfriends, a cool-headed businessman (when he needed to be), and an absolute lover of animals, exceedingly kind to all creatures, whether feathered or four-legged (except alligators. Eff them.). However, all that pales in comparison to what Jon was truly about. He was a murderer, a rapist, a thief, a kidnapper, a blackmailer, a money launderer, an informant, and a criminal drug smuggler who, from the late-1970s to the mid-1980s brought in several billion dollars worth of cocaine into the US. He was one of several noted American “Cocaine Cowboys,” if not the most prominent.

Jon Roberts, Cocaine Cowboy

Jon’s father was a Sicilian-born Mafia soldier, who made Jon witness a grisly murder at an early age. After his father was deported, Jon turned to a life of crime, being pushed around from schools to juvenile detentions to reform schools. His first sexual experience was raping a young girl whose father considered Jon like a son. Stupidly naive of the man, of course, as Jon never hid his violent, antisocial ways. Though Jon did have an astonishing ability to charm people despite his wicked nature.

He became more entrenched in a criminal lifestyle, interrupted only by a violent four-year stint in Vietnam, which only made Jon more bloodthirsty. After the war he joined the mafia, first running small-time scores for them, then climbing up the ladder bringing in big bucks. Eventually, he became a major player in the night club scene, the owner of various big-named clubs like Salvation, where famous celebrities would turn up. Jon would often lace their drinks with LSD for laughs. Once, Jon spiked Ed Sullivan’s drink, driving the variety-show host to a mini-nervous breakdown after fondling a prostitute’s naked breasts while tripping out. Jon’s old-school mustachioed Mafia bosses were not pleased.

Jon eventually got involved in several murders which brought on too much heat for his mob contacts and was banished from New York. From there he moved to Florida, where in just a short while he became a major mover in the cocaine business, working this time for the Colombian cartels, and raking in millions.

All this before the age of thirty.

A Twisted Empire

I won’t summarize the rest of his life, as there are numerous articles, books, tv movies and documentaries about “The Cocaine Cowboys”’ exploits. If you’re unfamiliar with names such as Pablo Escobar, Griselda Blanco, La Familia Ochoa, the Medellin Cartel, Max Mermelstein, Barry Seale, Mickey Munday, or most shocking of all, the Bush-Clinton MENA connection, I suggest a brief internet search to inform yourself before reading this book. Although it’s doubtful readers who are interested in the biography of Jon Roberts’ life are unaware of most of the characters involved in the Golden Age of Cocaine.

This is a fascinating story, but one so disgusting you may feel the need to take several showers afterward. Whether exaggerated or not, if only one-tenth of what Jon Roberts revealed in American Desperado is true, the War on Drugs is just a big dog-and-pony show that is supported by criminals and politicians alike, not to be redundant.

It’s a horrifying and infuriating notion.

Drive by James Sallis

Drive, James Sallis, Poisoned Pen Press, 1995

1 Star

Rating: 1 out of 5.

The Book – Drive

When the best thing about a book is that at least I can say I’ve read it, that’s sort of like saying: “Oh, chicken pox, I had that once! Root canal with Novocain wearing off, yup, I know the feeling! Hemorrhoids and explosive diarrhea, I hear you!”

Well, you get my drift…

Writer James Sallis’ so-called neo-noir crime-thriller novella, Drive, reads like something that would be assigned in a freshman English college course. It’s a terrible, post-modern action tale with tons of characters, ever-changing POVs, and a time-line all skewed so that important events happen in the middle instead of at the end, therefore losing any impact on the reader, and you don’t care when the story’s over.

It’s also one of the most boring books I’ve read. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has directed three of the most boring movies I’ve seen: “Valhalla Rising,” “Bronson,” and “Only God Forgives.” So how did these two artists combine together to make a movie I loved?

The film and book are so different; this is one of those rare cases where the movie excelled and the novella fell flat. Ryan Gosling played Driver as a man of few words who forms intense attachments to a select few. The Driver of this book is verbose and has lots of friends. It had to be the retro 80’s style and awesome soundtrack that fooled me into thinking the book would be just as slick and enjoyable as the film.

This book belongs in the ninth level of literary Hell, consigned to those who commit treachery, as I was duped into thinking this would be a masterpiece. I purchased this book thinking it was going to be an intense crime-noir; instead it ended being a crime that made me snore.