Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Two True Crime Hits

I sped through two works of true crime last week. I can’t get interested in any of the classics I’ve been wanting to read because all I want to read about is murder, apparently.Green River, Running Red: The Real Story of the Green River Killer - America's Deadliest Serial Murderer

What kicked off this spree was listening to the Crime Junkie podcast and hearing the story of the Green River Killer. It reminded me that Ann Rule had written a book about the case that I had glanced at and then dismissed because I wasn’t interested. Well, I downloaded the Kindle book from the library and set about getting all the terrible details.

Green River, Running Red is a story about the investigation of murders committed by a serial killer who targeted mostly women involved in prostitution beginning in the 80s (and possibly late 70s). Rule tells the story of many of the victims and what led them to prostitution along the SeaTac highway in Seattle. She does tell the story of the killer, Gary Ridgway, a classic normal-seeming blue collar worker who left some of his first victims along the Green River. He was finally caught in 2001 and eventually convicted of 49 murders, though he confessed to around 70, and is suspected to have been responsible for even more.

Ann Rule is my favorite true crime writer, hands down. Her focus in Green River, Running Red, like in her other books, is the police investigation of the crime at hand and she pays special attention to the victims and their stories, making sure to humanize those whose lives are often disregarded by larger society. She does paint a picture of the killer’s life and upbringing because she, like her readers, is fascinated by the personality that can lead someone to kill and kill over and over again.

Those stories are told within the framework of the police investigation leading to the killer’s eventual arrest. I recommend reading this only if you’ve got a strong stomach. There are graphic descriptions of the ways in which victims’ bodies are found, but I found the description of Ridgway and clearly psychopathic personality almost equally disturbing.

EvilAnother Crime Junkie episode reminded me of the case of Sylvia Likens, who was tortured to death in the home of a woman who was supposed to be taking care of her while her parents worked with a traveling carnival outfit. This case is well-known in Indiana, where I live, as it took place in Indianapolis, so I was eager to learn more.

After some online research, I landed on House of Evil by John Dean, which was first published in 1966, just a yer after Sylvia’s murder.

What’s unique about this terrible story is the fact that Gertrude Baniszewski, caregiver to Sylvia and her sister Jenny, solicited the help of her own daughter, Paula, as well as several neighborhood children, to abuse and eventually kill Sylvia. This story also requires a strong stomach, so if you can’t stand stories of child abuse or violence, avoid it, and maybe read the Wikipedia article, which is pretty correct, instead.

A review note: I thought this book was well-written, but I noticed some Goodreads reviewers calling it “scattered.” I didn’t think it was at all. There’s a clear progression along a timeline leading from the Likens sisters being dropped off with Gertrude right through the trial. Scenes are written pretty much chronologically.

On a tangential note, it’s hard to say why I read true crime. After finishing these books, I wondered, am I turning someone else’s tragedies into entertainment? I can’t honestly say that that’s not part of what I’m doing in reading these books. I mean, I think some  fascination with abhorrent behavior is natural. We all like to tell or listen to incredible stories and then remark “Isn’t that crazy?” And wonder how or why something terrible/crazy was allowed to happen. But is this kind of leisure reading akin to watching reality TV where the struggles of the people being filmed are offered up as entertainment? I don’t have an answer.

This list of 12 Reasons We Like True Crime was slightly reassuring. But only slightly.

Thoughts?

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6 thoughts on “Two True Crime Hits

  1. I haven’t read either of these but have heard both of the cases covered on other podcasts. I’m not sure I could stomach the Sylvia Likens one but might try Green River at some point. Good to hear your thoughts on them!

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  2. Oh boy, do I have thoughts. My predilection for true crime has always bothered me so I wrote this to try and understand myself:
    https://themillions.com/2018/01/why-i-read-true-crime.html

    if that’s TLDR, mainly I feel that I read true crime because I believe we can’t pretend violence doesn’t exist. We can’t shelter ourselves from it. So we should try and learn how it develops and how people recover from it, and take comfort from how many people try to mitigate its damages.

    Green River Running Red is an absolute classic. Also, have you read Sarah Perry’s “After the Eclipse”? A stunning memoir/true crime investigation, has changed my mind and thoughts in so many ways.

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  3. So glad you left that link because I thought you had written about something on this topic and I couldn’t remember where it was published. I like your take on why we read true crime and you’re right, it’s important to look at why these things happen in an effort to possibly prevent them. But I can’t help doing a little self-reflection and wondering, is my digging into the details of these kinds of crimes less noble than that? It’s possible.

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  4. Well, Shannon, it’s not so much noble as it is totally scared. I’m a huge believer in trying to maximize my personal safety and that of my boys, but it’s almost like I have to remind myself that some people do everything right and it still doesn’t matter, violence sucks. So therefore, we have just got to find ways to lessen violence.

    I also feel that true crime, in its focus on details, helps you get past the pat news stories. I remember reading “Lost Girls,” about the killer on Long Island who targets sex workers, and how that author pointed out, everyone thinks prostitutes are loners who nobody cares about, when really they are women with families, kids, spouses or boyfriends. Plenty of people make money from them (another problem that needs to be investigated more fully) and many people miss them, but it’s still hard to find their killer. I find true crime very honest. And if that means I have less than pure motives and I want to hear the details, I guess that’s what it has to mean.

    I don’t find true crime any more disturbing than all the made up thrillers and slasher novels, where someone just thought up violent details and then people just like to read them because they’re good “page turners.” I think that’s way sicker but nobody ever questions the motivations of Stieg Larsson and James Patterson readers!

    Whew, I’m done. Sorry. I just really have a lot to say about True Crime, evidently! Thanks for starting the discussion!

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  5. Oh, yes, I didn’t mean to imply that your motives were less than noble. Just reflecting on my own and wondering if one of the reasons I’m so interested in these stories is simply because they’re titillating. Some people do everything right and it doesn’t matter = a cold, hard truth about life. :/ I read Lost Girls too – similar themes with the Green River Killer in that the women are real people with lives and people who care about them. And, excellent point, people do not really question readers of those gruesome thrillers.

    I’m so glad you had things to say! Thanks for talking with me!

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