Top positive review
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on 23 February 2015
This true crime classic was published in 1974. The author, Victor Bugliosi, was Deputy District Attorney in L.A. and responsible for prosecuting the Tate-LaBianca murders. As this book was published a fairly short time after the actual events, it has a real immediacy, and Bugliosi's insider knowledge makes the reading experience extremely interesting.
The book opens with the murders, which are difficult to read about even after so long. On Saturday 9th August, 1969, screams and gunshots were heard from 10050 Cielo Drive. The bodies of actress Sharon Tate, heavily pregnant, Abigail Folger, heiress to a coffee fortune, Voytek Frykowski, a playboy, Jay Sebring, a celebrity hair stylist and Steve Parent, only eighteen, and caught up in events after visiting William Garretson, who lived in the nearby guest cottage to keep an eye on things for the owner of the house and care for his dogs, were discovered the next day by housekeeper Winifred Chapman. Garretson had not even heard the shots or screams reported by nearby neighbours, possibly as he was playing music loudly, although he did recall that the handle of his door was turned down, as though someone tried to enter the property. Luckily for him, he escaped further notice, although by sheer fact that he was nearby, he was considered the prime suspect at the time.
On Sunday 10th August, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca returned home to Los Angeles after visiting Rosemary's son in Lake Isabella. Dropping her daughter home, they picked up a newspaper from the stand and returned home. The next day their bodies were discovered when their son returned home and was concerned something was wrong at the house. Like the murders at Cielo Drive, the murders were savage and words were written, in blood, at the scene - including the infamous, "Healter Skelter," (spelt incorrectly) at the LaBianca home.
In July of that year, a music teacher, Gary Hinman, had been stabbed to death at his home. Like the scene at Cielo Drive and at the LaBianca house, words had been written in blood. However, the connection between the murders were initially ignored. In fact, apart from connections not being drawn, there were mistakes made during the investigation - including police officers obliterating prints at the Tate house and a gun found in the area, and handed in, being logged and forgotten about. The detectives leading the Tate murders were experienced, but set in their ways. Those involved with the LaBianca murders were younger, better educated and, although less experienced, more open minded. Indeed, they were the first to link the LaBianca crime with the Tate murders and even suggested the words written at the scene were from the Beatles latest album, the "White Album."
We read of evidence gathered, interviews and the rumours, and fear, that swept Hollywood. There were suggestions that the murders at Cielo Drive were linked to drug use and the victims were looked at by the press as `freaks' and their murders viewed with a lack of sympathy. Meanwhile, chillingly, a news report on the mass murder included both a short report on the murders of the LaBianca couple alongside mention of a raid on an isolated ranch owned by George Spahn. A group which had been stealing cars and converting them to dune buggies
The book then introduces those responsible for the terrible crimes. Gradually, the detectives become aware of Charles Manson and his `Family'. Largely this is because of members of the family themselves - Manson who bragged to biker Danny De Carlo and Susan Atkins, currently in prison after a raid on the ranch where the family lived, who told more than one other inmate that she had been involved in the killings.
We then meet the author himself. Victor Bugliosi finds he is in charge of prosecuting the Tate-LaBianca murders and painstakingly sets about trying to build a case against the suspects and finding evidence. We follow him to the Spahn ranch, interviewing suspects and coming into contact with Charles Manson for the first time. The police are under immense pressure to wrap the case up as quickly as possible and Bugliosi resists giving deals to Susan Atkins and Linda Kasabian, which might see them literally getting away with murder. Indeed, when he finally takes the cases before the L.A. County grand jury on December 5th, jurors are stunned by Atkins nonchalant testimony, while recounting the horrific murders she openly admitted to being involved in.
The book then moves on to the preparation for the trial. Bugliosi's work is hampered with problems he has with the detectives investigating the Tate murders. He finds the LaBianca detectives far more conscientious and asks them to help him in the task of securing evidence and strengthening their case. He has the difficult task of convincing the jury of Manson's domination over the Family. Meanwhile, Manson himself is acting as his own attorney, while endeavouring to bring the Family members under his control, even in prison. Not everybody is behind bars and many potential witnesses, such as Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, are living in fear and have received death threats, which makes Bugliosi's harder.
Surprisingly, despite being on trial for his involvement in vicious murders, much of the press and public seem to be enamoured by Manson. This love affair with the press is gaining the Family more converts. While the author seems perplexed by this, he is even more confused by the possible motives for the murders. He discovers that Manson quotes constantly from the Beatles and The Bible; plus he borrows various terms from Scientology and has an obsession with the Third Reich. Can Bugliosi convince a jury that the murders were committed because Manson believed the Beatles were sending him coded messages through the "White Album," to begin a racial war in the United States?
The trial itself is covered in great detail; from choosing the jury, through Manson's courtroom antics. Victor Bugliosi was the prosecutor of the Tate and LaBianca trial and so is expertly placed to put us at the very heart of the case. It is obvious that fear was very real - members of the Family were camped outside the Court and carrying weapons openly. Celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Steve McQueen were said to be future targets, as well as those already involved in the case - from Bugliosi himself to possible witnesses. Indeed, before the end of the trial, there will be more crimes committed, including murder... The author's central role in the proceedings helps give the book immense detail and also tension - as the author was truly dedicated to getting the victims of the Tate - LaBianca trial justice.
The epilogue sees the author musing that, even though the defendants had been convicted, events were not yet over. How many murders did Manson and members of the Family commit? At the very least, there was also the murder of Gary Hinman and Donald "Shorty" Shea, as well as the attempted murder of witness Barbara Hoyt, the possible murder of one of the attorneys in the trial and threats to those involved in the case. Other things covered here, albeit briefly, is the trial of Charles "Tex" Watson, plots by the Family to free Manson and the others and the author's musings on Manson's beliefs.
In 1975 this book won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book and I can easily see why. I have read this before, but found it even more engrossing on re-reading it. It would really be interesting to have the author update this book, as I would be fascinated to hear what he thinks about the case now. At the time he wrote this, the author did not expect Manson to be released from prison, but he did not oppose Susan Atkins release when she was seriously ill (which was denied and she died in prison in 2009) and other members of the Family are still incarcerated. I would certainly have liked to have had, perhaps, a new epilogue or an updated preface to this edition. Still, I recommend this to anybody interested in true crime