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A tribute to Ann Rule, the queen of true crime

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Oct 22, 2020, 4:18 PM EDT (Updated)

In 1971, Ann Rule was a single mother of four children and an occasional writer who had previously worked for the Seattle Police Department. Looking for ways to support her family while furthering her passion for journalism, she ended up securing a contract to write about a series of unsolved murders in the American Northwest, a case that had baffled the authorities. Living in the city at the time, she volunteered at a suicide crisis hotline, taking calls from individuals who were at risk of suicide or facing other difficulties in their lives. During this time, she befriended a fellow volunteer, a psychology student at the University of Washington who shared with her his dreams of a career in law or politics. Rule considered her friend "kind, solicitous, and empathetic," and the pair became close, often sharing meals together. After he left the crisis center, their friendship drifted apart. Then, in 1978, that same friend was arrested, having been revealed as one of the most infamous and brutal serial killers and rapists of 20th-century America, and the same man responsible for the crimes she had spent years investigating. His name? Ted Bundy.

Ann Rule's experience with Bundy is now the stuff of true crime legend. It's the kind of story that sounds too strange, too convenient to be true: A true crime writer and amateur investigator interested in a notorious series of murders discovers that she was once friends with the man who did it. The book she wrote on the Bundy case, The Stranger Beside Me, remains not only one of the definitive texts in the Bundy history but one of the all-time greats in true crime. First published in 1980 (and updated numerous times over the decades as the case progressed), the book was an instant best-seller and the subject of a made-for-TV movie. Afterward, Rule published more than 30 other books, landed a $7 million publishing deal, and won numerous awards. Without Ann Rule, true crime as we know it today — a legitimate cultural phenomenon of critical and commercial force — simply would not exist.

Credit: Penguin Books

Rule described herself as less a writer or journalist and more a "psychological detective." Her work was extremely focused on the pathology of the criminal mind and what makes seemingly the most normal and pleasant person do monstrous things. Her most famous books centered on that conundrum, often focusing on the most shocking crimes of the era. In Small Sacrifices, she dug into the case of Diane Downs, a woman charged with trying to kill her three children after she told police that a carjacker had done it, an assertion Downs affirms to this day. Green River, Running Red examined the crimes of Gary Ridgeway, a serial killer convicted of 49 separate murders, a total that makes him the second most prolific serial killer in United States history. If You Really Loved Me examined the strange case of Cinnamon Brown, a 14-year-old girl who was manipulated into killing her stepmother by her millionaire father.

In a 1994 interview with The Guardian, Rule explained how she chose a particular case for study out of the hundreds she was sent or discovered every year:

"I'm looking for a protagonist, a subject who is as many of these as possible: attractive, rich, brilliant, successful, charismatic, has love in his life — basically all the things that we think we would be happy if we had, but they always want more. [I don't want to hear about killers who are] ugly, mean and have no charm. We're not interested in the kind of person who looks like he would commit murder. We want to know about the kind who you could not imagine having this monstrous self behind the pleasant face."

She certainly found her heroes and villains easily with these stories, and she was especially skilled in teasing out those shades of gray that made such narratives so appealing. It's evident in The Stranger Beside Me as she explains her own often complicated and abrasive emotions regarding Bundy, including admitting how she herself became charmed by his act.

The stuff that makes Rule's work so readable is often the same things that left her with a deeply problematic legacy. In a 2008 preface to The Stranger Beside Me, she talked about the fan mail she got from readers who said they loved Bundy, an error Rule partly blames herself for. The book is, after all, full of descriptions of how handsome and charming this killer was, and while she had intended to "warn readers that evil sometimes comes in handsome packages," she described herself as "naive" in her early ability to convey that crucial lesson. While she has written sympathetically about women in sex work (who make up a shocking portion of murder cases in America), Rule's books are typically the denizen of middle-class white people, a detail that echoes a lot of the genre's obsession with a kind of white-picket-fence "perfection" that excludes people of color.

Rule had no qualms about explaining her interest in "an 'antihero' whose eventual arrest shocks those who knew him (or her)," but that seldom reflects the brutality of crime in America. The most shocking and prolific murders in this country are almost painfully familiar: Spousal abuse, gun violence, human trafficking, and, of course, the murder of Black men and women by the police. To put it bluntly, these cases are seldom titillating to the reader or viewer of true crime, and they're not exactly the kinds of stories that people want to read a juicy 500+-page paperback on. They want something more salacious and, to a degree, fantastical. Familiar yet somewhat unlikely. These stories are by no means less threatening or unworthy of being told, but there's a reason that shows like Tiger King became successful at a time when police brutality against Black Americans reached a new tipping point in our cultural consciousness.

For a long time, true crime was, while enormously popular with readers and viewers, considered something of a shameful hobby. The genre was defined by cheaply printed paperbacks full of lurid color photographs in the center pages that promised shock, awe, and gore. These were tales that reveled in the darkness and had no qualms about their own inherent trashiness. Of course this was a guilty pleasure: How could you openly brag about enjoying something rooted in human pain and tragedy? Rule's books fit perfectly into this mold, comfortably on the shelf alongside marathons of Forensic Files, pulp magazines like True Detective, and show-all websites such as Find a Death. Rule gave readers exactly what they wanted, for better or worse.

Credit: Simon & Schuster

Nowadays, true crime is relatively respectable and the stuff of glossy thinkpieces, from NPR's Serial to Netflix's The Keepers to HBO's The Jinx. It wins Emmys, gets lauded as the future of journalism, and is such a mainstream obsession that people proudly call themselves Murderinos. At the same time, true crime has never lost its gauche qualities. Consider Tiger King, a show so proud of its own seediness that Netflix turned it into an endless meme, thus downplaying the seriousness of the crimes at its heart, including harassment, ordering a hit on someone, and the deaths of multiple animals. The window dressing may be fancier, but true crime retains its intrinsic queasily hypnotic allure. Rule's work was never particularly elegant, and it often delved into discomfiting tropes, but it, arguably more so than the current glut of modern prestige true crime, understood what makes it so enthralling to us. As Michelle Dean described her in The Guardian, Rule "understood that she lived in a society both terrified of and obsessed with killing." That double-edged sword is at the heart of her many books. We are repulsed by the crimes but desperate to know what makes these people tick, because if we figure that out, then perhaps we'll feel safer. That doesn't need to be gussied up to be appealing.

We may never fully come to terms with our true crime obsession. It's a key part of our humanity, one that capitalist and entertainment forces have pandered to with great success for decades, for better or worse. Ann Rule stands out because she did it so effectively, even with her many faults and the questionable paths laid down by her approach. She understood something we still grapple with to this day: Would we know the true face of darkness if it stood in front of us with a smile?

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