Book Review: Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter: The True Story Of The Manson Murders, by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry

This is a book that was written by the prosecutor of the initial Manson cases, and this book makes for sure a thorough case against Manson and his associates and ends up proving to be quite critical of the LAPD in particular for their lax attitude about following up clues and tips given to them by people, including other law enforcement organizations, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, who was investigating two related murders while the LAPD was investigating the Tate murders. The author does a good job at laying out his case as well as his frustrations and fascination with the context of the Manson case. Indeed, one of the best things that this book does as far as true crime is concerned is to provide a reason why it is that Manson is remembered so highly even though later mass murderers have come and gone and been far more quickly forgotten despite their crimes. Something about the motive of Manson is darkly fascinating and that attracts for glamor that he has which other crime sprees and other serial killers simply do not possess.

This is a massive book at nearly 700 pages in length, and it is divided into eight sizable parts. The book begins with illustrations as well as a cast of characters which, as one might imagine, is somewhat large. After that the book is organized in a chronological fashion to discuss different aspects of the case. First, the book begins with a discussion of the murders included in the initial murder spree, which end up focusing on three different sets of murders–those committed around Death Valley, the Tate murders, and then the LaBianca murders, all of which were in different jurisdictions (1). After that the author focuses some attention on the killers (2), and their behavior until they were arrested. Following this comes a discussion of the second phase of the investigation after the suspects were in jail (3). This is followed by the author’s own diligent search for the murder motive (4), which I think the author manage to do pretty well. The pre-trial period of hype and myth then follows (5), as well as a very detailed discussion of the course of the criminal trial (6). The author spends some time talking about the penalty trial and the retaliatory murders, which included one of the defense counsel (7), and then a look at the efforts of the family to free their comrades (8), before the book ends with an epilogue on shared madness as well as an Afterword that looks at the continuing story of the various participants.

It should be noted right off the bat that this book makes for somewhat disturbing reading. The author is pretty graphic about the evidence recorded at the crime scenes, including the various wounds of the people involved, and is similarly graphic about the testimony and his discussions with Manson as well as the behavior of the Manson family even after many of the members were arrested. The book is compelling because the author takes to writing this book (and presumably others) the way he took to being a prosecutor. The case presented is disciplined but also compelling, and based on both evidence and sound reasoning. In the course of telling the reader more detail about the Manson case than most would ever care to imagine knowing, the author also informs the reader about certain aspects of the law, including legal restrictions that prevent “we” statements from being viewed as evidence against others. Anything that can provide me with a reflection on the ideal justice system and how our own justice system falls short, which this book does, is certainly a useful and worthwhile book, and this one is. It is also a very long book and probably not the sort of book most readers will want to flip through at night. It is telling, and intriguing, that Charles Manson was hostile to hippies but was viewed as being among them. Dispelling the myth is something that this book manages to do quite well.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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