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I was two years out of law school in 1969, working in the governor's office in Sacramento. In Northern California we were still living in fear over another monster, the Zodiac Killer -- another vicious apparently 'random' killer who was never identified. Unlike the Zodiac, Manson and his family were captured -- which made his case all that much more interesting, garnering the attention of almost everyone for months on end. I followed it closely -- or thought I did. I read Bugliosi's book soon after it came out and remember loving it, loving access to the details about the "family" he provided that I hadn't known before.
How time changes things. What I loved about the book in the 1970's were the personal elements, biographical details about the "family's" lives, who they were, how they got caught up in the insanity, much of which hadn't been widely available at the time.
Now, listening to Scott Brick's elegant, almost respectful, narration, I see something entirely different. Now -- in light of another judicial fiasco out of Los Angeles -- what captures my attention was the horrendous incompetence of the Los Angeles judicial system.
Now, all I can do is compare the Manson case to the O.J. Simpson case, in which (if you can believe this) bad as it was, the LAPD comes off looking pretty good as compared to Manson. In Manson, there were so much mismanagement, elemental mistakes, goofs and just plain incompetence of the LAPD, it's a wonder any of them were convicted of anything.
There's no question in my mind that if Manson went to trial today in LA, on the evidence available back then, he would never be convicted. Juries back then were, I think, more rational, more justice-based, than they are today. Today, I think the defense would be able to capitalize on the unbelievable errors, loose ends, mishandling of the evidence, incompetence in handling the evidence -- from everyone, the medical examiner, the police, and the detectives. Today, a jury would focus in on all those errors and mistakes. Back then, the jury focused on the big picture. Did these people do what they were alleged to have done? In short, they kept the defendants on trial. They didn't feel the need to try the LAPD instead.
Much credit goes to Vince Bugliosi himself, of course. His oft-repeated frustration with the total lack of trial support he was getting makes for fascinating reading. Working 14 hour days, being forced into doing much of the leg work himself after the LAPD failed or refused to do it -- or just lost it, after they did do it -- you get a real feel for the seat-of-the-pants lawyering that was possible back then. The world has changed. That wouldn't work anymore -- and on the whole, life in the US is the poorer and more dangerous for it.
All in all, "Helter Skelter" is a fascinating look at a monumental trial that still plays ranks high in legal mythology. It's a key part of American cultural history that's well worth reading, rereading or listening to.
55 of 56 people found this review helpful
This is an amazing story. The fact that it is true...never quite reaches believable. But it is. I was only 9 when the murders happened. I remember the pervasive fear. This book doesn't explain it all---How could it? Not even a book by Manson himself would accomplish that. But this book is as close the mark as we can get. It adds to the horror if one has actually heard Manson speak and realize how charismatic he could be. The authors turn the array of clues and facts into a compelling story. I think it's one of the best True Crime books out there and the audiobook is a job well done.
11 of 11 people found this review helpful
Would you consider the audio edition of Helter Skelter to be better than the print version?
In both print and on audio the book becomes more and more engrossing as it develops. It's length makes the audio version preferable for a second reading. There is so much detail only an unabridged version is acceptable.
What did you like best about this story?
The detail of the story, what might be described as the boring work of detection that a fiction thriller would leave out is the most compelling aspect of the story. Detectives, as they say, 'work the case' and in Helter Skelter it's clear what this really means. There's also a sense of people reacting to a murder in different ways,creating their own version of events when they don't know the truth, being unable to see the truth, because they have created their own narrative of the crime. What comes through step by step is the sense of evil: of people being able to decide and plan and want to murder, and to believe they have the right to murder. The facts of the case are famous, but the detail is what makes an engrosssing and morally insightful story.
Have you listened to any of Scott Brick’s other performances? How does this one compare?
I recognize the name Scott Brick, but don't track my audio books by performance. Brick's reading is slow and steady and clear. Some might say that this is not dramatic enough, but it would be a betrayal of the book to give it an over-dramatic reading. Brick also avoids any sort of accents or performance for the dialogue, which is also the right approach.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
I read the book in print many years ago and decided to revisit it in audio. At 26 hours its not a book for a single sitting. Its a book I will listen to for an hour and then leave for some time, treating it more like a serial than single story. 26 parts is a long tale. Also there are a lot of people and events. Its more involving to mull over events, rather than consume them at one gulp. The book is structured to move slowly towards the killers, chronologically, this does work as a dramatic device. The public history means that you know who will be convicted, but the book recreates this process, giving you a sense that how things turned out were not always inevitable and clear.
Any additional comments?
A book like Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a fictional crime story, is lauded as a literary work, and this is justified. There's always some sense that a true crime story is more sensationalist and morally tawdry compared to true literature. There is badly written true crime, but Helter Skelter is written with the detail and diligence that makes it a great book. It's a social novel, about people who lived and worked in Hollywood in the sixties and a study of a 'cult'. Both these topics are often treated superficially, but in working from the facts, using the development as the investigation as an insight into the people, their motives and personality become understood.
15 of 16 people found this review helpful
The book starts where the whole investigation would have begun - the discovery of the horrific crime scene of the Sharon Tate murders at 10050 Cielo Drive, Berkeley, LA. From there we are taken - via grisly descriptions - to the identification and subsequent clearing of early suspects, through to the growing signs pointing towards the Manson 'Family', the spreading investigation, and then arrests, trial and convictions of the killers.
Along the way we learn - as prosecutor and author Bugliosi would have learned - the backgrounds and psychology of everyone involved, from Manson himself through a whole cast of characters, some killers, some ordinary Family members, contacts, victims, people who 'just passed through' or - like Susan Atkins' cellmates - who were simply unwilling recipients of her crazed confession/boasts about the crimes.
The book is very long and full of forensic detail right from the very start. It is at times very repetitive as we hear the same things from different witnesses, and then repeated again in Bugliosi's and others' reports, and brought out yet again at the trial. Although the Tate and LaBianca murders are the central crimes, there is also much attention paid to other victims thought to have been killed by Manson Family members.
You might think that all this fine detail and repetition would make for a boring account... but no, it grips relentlessly and won't let you go. Compelling, hypnotic, revolting, but never boring. It's only towards the end that you realise it was written in 1974, but there is a lengthy 'Afterword' by Bugliosi which brings the story up to 1994, tells of the unexpected public obsession with Manson, and the subsequent fate of everyone involved in the matter including judge, attorneys, and prosecutors.
Scott Brick's reading is steady, authoritative yet undramatic, and suits the subject matter perfectly.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
I chose this without giving it much thought and have found it to be extremely well written and interesting without playing up to the gruesomeness of the crimes. Although written in the 70s it does not feel dated at all. Highly recommended
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Really excellent book, well written and narrated. Keeps your interest throughout with many inside pieces of information