📚 What to Read Next (No. 210): The Helter Skelter Edition
Happy Friday, readers!
I’m about 100 pages into Stephen King’s The Stand (1,300 pages!), which I first read about 10 years ago. It’s even better than I remember. I also started Isabel Wilkerson’s modern classic, The Warmth of Other Suns (700 pages). How quickly can I get through 2,000 pages in the dead of winter? You’ll be the first to find out.
In the meantime, I’ll write about some books that I haven’t had the chance to share yet.
Back in November and December, I went on a mini-binge of Charles Manson reading—something I suppose every fan of true crime does at some point in their life. I started with a classic, Helter Skelter, then read a couple newer books. It made for some memorable reading, to say the least.
As always, let me know what you’re reading and enjoying this week!
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi
There’s a reason Helter Skelter is the best-selling true crime book of all time. The first few pages hooked me in a way that few books ever have.
Vincent Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor in the Manson trial, opens the book with the morning after the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders that rocked Hollywood—and the entire world—in August 1969.
From there, Bugliosi recreates the crime, with a lot of focus on how the LA detectives bungled the case—Manson wasn’t arrested for over two months after the murders. He gets into some background material, but largely focuses on uncovering the evidence and motives for the crimes.
It’s obvious that Bugliosi is rather arrogant; he thinks he’s hot shit and isn’t afraid to say it. But in this case, and in this book, that tone seems to work. The Manson trial needed a self-confident lawyer who wouldn’t cow to the Family’s bullying, sometimes insane tactics.
While Bugliosi’s many narrative mistakes were pointed out in other books (see below!), it’s an undeniably powerful story that’s incredibly well told (with the help of a co-author). It’s a 600-page book that never feels that long.
Required reading for any true crime fan.
I followed Helter Skelter with the Tom O’Neill blockbuster Chaos. You wouldn’t believe how many people have told me to read this one—on Instagram, in email, in comments on this newsletter.
And I tell ya what, the story is bonkers. In 1999, Premier magazine gave O’Neill an assignment to write about the 30-year anniversary of the Manson Family murder spree and how it changed Hollywood. O’Neill became obsessed, missed the deadline by a couple decades, and wrote this book instead.
It starts with his many criticisms of Bugliosi’s classic book, as well as a handful of personal confrontations with the legendary LA lawyer. In my opinion, there were the most powerful parts of the book. Bugliosi was arrogant to the extreme and, of course, left out the bits of the story that didn’t fit the tight narrative he was telling. O’Neill does a great job sussing out where Bugliosi went astray from the truth.
After that, O’Neill questions the Helter Skelter motive as a whole and, like any good true crime conspiracy theorist, tries to nail down “what really happened.”
And this is where things went off the rails for me personally. He admits a number of times that there’s really no way to know the truth, but then offers a number of theories, including, most memorably, the CIA’s conspiring to sow chaos into 1960s and early 1970s America.
I just didn’t buy into the second half of the book, which led to a 3-star rating from me. I know a ton of people who loved this book, though, so don’t necessarily take this as the final word on Chaos.
Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn
After Chaos and Helter Skelter, Manson was a breath of level-headed fresh air. From the start, it was clear that Guinn is a masterful storyteller—there’s no agenda to speak of, other than to tell the story of how Charles Manson became a name recognized around the world.
Guinn covers Manson’s life: his rocky childhood and shockingly early entry into a life of crime, his multiple lengthy stays in correctional facilities, his foolhardy dreams of becoming a famous musician, his descent into murderous cult leader.
And, as the subtitle promises, Guinn covers the “Times” too: What was it about the America of the 1960s that allowed all the players in this story—from the murderers and victims alike—to end up where they did on August 9th and 10th, 1969?
It’s a memorable, unforgettable landscape and portrait that Guinn ultimately paints.
I had long been aware of Guinn’s work but had never read anything before this one. After this 5-star read, I can easily say that I’m really looking forward to reading his numerous other books. Had I read Manson just a couple weeks earlier, it probably would have replaced Helter Skelter in my Best of 2021 list.
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