Meeting Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse

dexter_-_the_wench_is_deadIt’s impossible for me to think of Inspector Morse, Colin Dexter‘s fictional middle-aged Oxford detective, with a penchant for booze, attractive but dangerous women and classical music, and not think of the late, great John Thaw, who played him so brilliantly in the acclaimed BBC television series.

And so it was John Thaw’s pensive face, with its penetrating stare, roman nose and white mop of hair, that became Morse in my head as I sat down to read The Wench is Dead.

It was the first time I had ‘read’ Inspector Morse, rather than watched him on television. (I’d picked up a hardback copy of the book for free at the East Melbourne Library and tucked into it on a holiday at Philip Island).

As my introduction to Inspector Morse the written character, I was not in the least disappointed: Morse came alive on the page as the grumpy, but brilliant sleuth with an overactive libido and a penchant for good quality booze.

This was despite nearly all of the action in this story taking place from a hospital bed – Inspector Morse’s hospital bed to be precise – and involving a case that happened  130 years prior when a young married woman called Joanna Franks was found drowned and murdered in the Oxford Canal.

Confined to his hospital bed, having survived a burst ulcer, Morse, with the help of his ever faithful sidekick, Sergeant Lewis, sets about investigating the case after something in the re-telling of it fills Morse with unease’ the story of her murder having come his way via a small booklet given to him while bed-ridden.

Two of the boatmen are executed for Joanna Frank’s brutal murder, while a third is shipped off to Australia following a last-minute pardon. But something does not gel for Morse, who can’t resist putting his great detective skills to work.

It was just a little worrying, that was all…the way the dice had been loaded all the time against those drunkards, who had murdered Joanna Franks.

And then later, after some pondering and detective work by Lewis:

Almost, now, Morse felt he could put his finger on the major cause of his unease. It was all those conversations heard and duly reported…all of it was somehow wrong.

In between putting his greater detective mind to work, he finds time to charm a number of attractive nurses looking after him, manages to sneak in a few glasses of Scotch smuggled in by Lewis, despite strict hospital orders forbidding it, and of course solves the The Times Cryptic crossword.

It’s wonderful writing full of Morse’s wit, humour and great intellect with the story shifting back and forward between the murky waters of the canal in 1859, as the boat drifts slowly down toward’s Joanna Frank’s doom and Morse propped up in his hospital bed pondering the possibilities and sending Lewis off on various assignments to dig up old newspaper articles and dig around in musty Oxford archives.

The thought of drink had begun to concentrate Morse’s mind powerfully, and with great circumspection and care, Morse poured a finger of Scotch into his bedside glass, with the same amount of plain water. Wonderful!. Pity that no one would ever believe his protestations that Scotch was a necessary stimulant to his brain cells! For after a few minutes his mind was flooding with ideas – exciting ideas! – and furthermore he realised that he could begin to test one or two of his hypotheses that very evening.

The Wench is Dead, published in 1986 was the eighth out of 13 Inspector Morse books that Colin Dexter, a former grammar school teacher, wrote over a period of more than 25 years.


The late John Thaw as Inspector Morse

Dexter came up with idea of Morse in 1972 while sitting at the kitchen one rainy day on a family holiday in Wales with nothing to do. He recounted this is in an interview with

I went in the kitchen and locked the door and I started writing. There’d been two crime books in the guest house and I’d read one of them; I can’t remember what it was. I didn’t think I could do any better but I thought I could do almost as well. I don’t know if it was the first page or the first paragraph, but gradually a few ideas materialized.

Later on, in the same interview he talks about the traits he shared with Inspector Morse, these being: a love of classical music, especially Wagner, sensitivity to the arts, music and literature, the enjoyment of alcohol, particularly single malt Scotch and real ale, “a bit too much” and a confession to being a bit of pessimist “with not much faith in the future of the planet”.

Of those traits Dexter says he did not share with Morse were Morse’s incredible mental capacity for crime solving, Morse’s fondness for attractive but deadly women and his perennial bachelor status  (Dexter was married and had children) and Morse’s meanness with money.

All of these traits make up the wonderfully complex character of Inspector Morse, who is surely one of the finest fictional detectives in modern literature ranking right up their with Sherlock Holmes, Jane Tennyson and modern greats like Luther.

Morse’s great powers of problem solving are in full display in the The Wench is Dead, a brilliant ‘whoddunnit’ cold case  that is short enough to be enjoyed on a rainy afternoon, perhaps with a decent glass of Scotch and classical music – possibly Wagner – playing in the background.

Publicly shaming: how Jon Ronson changed my mind about Justine Sacco

jon-ronsonI remember when the whole universe seemingly exploded over Justine Sacco, the PR executive who Tweeted:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!!”

I was quick to jump on the worldwide bandwagon to publicly shame someone I did not know. “She got what she deserved” I remember telling myself as the young lady got off a flight in Cape Town to find her life in ruins: her job in New York gone, her reputation destroyed, her prospects in life shattered all because she’d made a silly joke.

At the time I joined the millions of people who shared in the pleasure of Justine Sacco’s public evisceration by everyone and their dog. I retweeted. I told my friends. I shamed her.

And yet, as British journalist Jon Ronson points out in his highly entertaining and thought-provoking book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed the only real victim in this fiasco was Justine Sacco herself.

Apart from being offended by her Tweet, which via some quirk of fate, became a world-wide infamous sensation, no one at all was hurt or damaged by it.

Instead,  Justine Sacco suffered humiliation, depression and anxiety that went on for months and months. And worse, her tiny “moment of madness” lives on online. Just type in her name into Google and see for yourself.

Ronson’s entertaining and engrossing book (which reminded me of Louis Theroux) delves into many instances of public shaming – not all of them related to social media – as he explores what has become a re surging global phenomenon not seen for centuries.

Not only does he interview the victims of public shameings including Justine Sacco, but he also delves into the psychology of this mob-like behaviour, explores how Google’s search tools have created reputations that refuse to go away and speaks to people who have made a fortune out of resuscitating the personal reputations of those who have become infamous online. (Yes, there are companies that can get your name off page 1 of Google searches).

Justine Sacco

Among Ronson’s  “case studies” is the story of the down fall of the writer Jonah Lehrer, who was caught out making up a Bob Dylan quote in a best-selling book  (in this case his public shaming felt quite deserving as Lehrer comes across as arrogant, privileged and above all…lazy) and that of Lindsey Stone who posted an irreverent (and frankly quite funny) photo on Facebook of herself flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery, which destroyed her life in much the same way that it ruined Justine Sacco’s.


Then there’s the story of former Formula One racing boss Max Mosley, whose alleged S&M Nazi-style orgy was splashed all across the British tabloids in all its photographic detail.


Mosley’s case is perhaps the most fascinating (not least because he was the son of notorious British fascists Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford) because he sued the Murdoch press for invasion of privacy and won in court.

The broader point Ronson makes is that Mosley – unlike other victims of publish shaming – was not embarrassed by his behaviour and instead became something of an anti-tabloid hero when took on the now defunct News of the World.

In the end I quite liked the feisty Max Mosley.

However, the greatest compliment I can pay Ronson is to say that reading his book changed my feelings about Justine Sacco tremendously.

Apart from revealing many mistruths about Sacco’s life (she was not the heiress to some rich businessmen or a spoilt white woman who didn’t care about others) it seemed awful that someone should be punished in vast disproportion to her crime, which at worse was that of making a silly, misinterpreted joke.

For as Ronson pointed out, within her Tweet, was the kernel of truth: AIDS is an epidemic in Africa that mainly affects black people not privileged white people. And that he says is the point Sacco was trying – albeit clumsily – to make.

As I read about Justine Sacco, the real Justine, I felt genuinely sorry for her and felt she deserved a lot of public sympathy and a chance at putting her lie back together. I also felt embarrassed at my glee at her public humiliation.

So I’d like to publicly apologise to Justine Sacco  for the part I played in ruining her life and thank Jon Ronson for writing his book.

And the next time I’m about to smugly retweet someone being torn to shreds on Twitter or mocked on Facebook for something silly or inadvertently in bad taste, I’ll think again before I click “Send” or “Post”.

Because the next time, it could be me on the receiving end.

Remembering a lionhearted friend

13626405_160511671019245_6888735082524876778_nI had a dream the other night about my close friend Darren Serebro, who passed away on July 27, 1997 from leukemia. We were both 23.

I was working as a camp counselor in Mid-west America near Milwaukee when he died in a Johannesburg hospital after an incredibly brave two year battle with the horrendous disease. At the time, he was awaiting a bone marrow transplant that might have saved his life.

Incredibly, just over a week before he died, on July 19, I received a long, letter from Darren via fax. Hand written in his neat, compact style, it ran to eight beautiful pages.

I still have the letter. It has survived numerous overseas trips and relocations to London, Sydney, Brisbane and now Melbourne, and miraculously, a water spillage, that turned the pages brown. (I have since scanned it and saved a digital copy.)

I thought, after all these years, I might share some of what Darren wrote and pay tribute to a lionhearted friend whom I have never forgotten.

From the confines of his isolation ward, because his cancer was no longer in remission, Darren began by apologising for the delay in writing back to me:

Dear La

I do apologise for not writing sooner. I am aware that this is an extremely cliched expression with which to start a piece of correspondence and can comprehend that while time is pretty much the same for us, you life has been altered radically for the moment and more regular correspondence from S.A. would be re-assuring.

Of course this was the kind of man Darren was. Even gravely ill, he could put himself in someone else’s shoes. (Studying law at the time, he would have made a brilliant lawyer in the Atticus Finch mold).

As for my life being “altered radically” it was nothing in comparison to the challenges he had faced everyday since learning of his cruel diagnosis, about two years prior.

Darren was softly-spoken (except after a few glasses of good whiskey), but also someone who laughed easily. He was extremely polite but equally capable of being cheeky, hilarious and crude.

He was quite brilliant, a straight A student. I remember he had an amazing ability to absorb and retain information , was intensely curious and interested in other people and places, loved travelling and eating out at good restaurants and was generous to the point of always putting others’ needs before himself. He was a true “Mensch“.

In the first few pages of the letter, Darren describes his current medical situation, the two treatment options available to him and his decision to undergo a bone marrow transplant.

The other option, he writes, of receiving small doses of chemotherapy would “inevitably result in my death within approximately two years”.

His candidness about his own mortality is painful to read now.

I try to picture him back then, in his isolation ward, no doubt feeling awful and yet writing in a concentrated manner. Perhaps from time to time he looks out the window, at the leafy northern suburbs of Jo’burg or pauses to think about how best to describe things to me.

Darren had a brilliant mind and intellect. This he put to full use to explain complex medical terms and procedures in relation to his illness he had sadly become an expert on. He goes into great detail explaining the procedure for undergoing a bone marrow transplant, enumerating the risks like ‘Graft versus Host’ disease and the treatments that would follow. He ends this part of the letter by saying:

Hopefully, a realistic and hopeful outlook on my part, combined with God’s will, will see me survive and will carry me through this trying time, into a long, healthy, happy and successful future.

The rest of the letter is full of wit, charm and lashings of wicked humour as he describes the ‘goings on’ among the Jo’burg scene and his limited interactions with hospital visitors.

A hilarious part of the letter is when Darren dutifully lists all the experiences, he believed I was going through, thousands of miles away at Summer Camp in Wisconsin.

These he believed included meeting some international students of similar age, some of of whom are “extremely attractive”. He adds, in brackets a succinct description: “6 foot tall, 34 inch bust, great legs, pretty face”.

He also reminds me:

“You have seen more of the state of Wisconsin than any Jewish Jo’burger knew exists. The average kugel or bagel tour through the States never comprehended ‘such far off places’

(For those not of Joburg Jewish descent, a ‘kugel’ refers to a Jewish princess, while a ‘bagel’ is the male equivalent.)

Later, he talks about how some of our friends are making a long weekend of the following weekend and going to the Game Reserve. Some of the guys have girlfriends, other not. Darren writes:

Paul says he has told Craig to dress up in drag because neither of them is going steady with a girl at the moment. HA HA. Join the club!

These jokes take me back to the numerous cups of coffee we – Darren, myself and our third musketeer, Jason – would share at ‘Carlos’, the Italian cafe on Grant Avenue, Norwood (also the preferred place for first dates) where we would talk about our lack of girlfriends, the latest arty movie we had seen in Rosebank, discuss politics, art and music interspersed with lashing of local Jo’burg gossip, personal slights and other social faux pas.

Some of the humour in the letter is decidedly black, but who could blame Darren, given his situation.

Talking about a girl he liked and who had visited him a number of times he remarks that wearing a mask is “not conducive to long, wet kisses. HA! HA!”.

Also, he remarks after not hearing from her for a few days: “She knows where to find me.Unfortunately, I have more critical life issues to deal with at the moment.”

I had no idea this letter would be the last I would here from him – or maybe being so far away I pushed the idea to the furthest corner of my mind. It was certainly difficult to comprehend Darren’s passing, thousands of miles a way among people who did not know him.

Many months later, when I returned to South Africa and visited Darren’s family, it came as a profound shock that he did not come down the stairs to greet me.

The saddest part of his letter, is that I missed his last birthday on May 25th by a single day. I wish I had been there. Darren writes:

About 30 people came over for coffee – it was the day after your left. (Thank you for the present by the way).

He ends the letter:


Rest in peace my friend. You remind me never to take life for granted and to actually count my blessings, of which there have been many.

I only wish you had had that “long, healthy, happy and successful future” you hoped for and deserved.



The utter stupidity of a Muslim migration ban

Turkey SyriaIt is hard to believe that almost one in two Australians support a total ban on Muslim migration.

Yet that is the finding of an apparently credible new Essential Media Poll.

As nauseating as that statistic is, it does though provide some clues as to where the likes of One Nation’s Pauline Hanson draws her small support base from. 

And if you extrapolate these findings to other first world countries, it explains the popularity of Donald Trump, the likely next US President, who wants an American ban on Muslim migration and travel.

I wonder how moderate, tolerant Australians feel about this.

I fear for the future of Australia’s enviable multi-cultural society.

I worry about the personal safety of the many traditionally dressed Muslims I see on the train every single day in my commute into work, who may become the target of violence.

And I wonder what prominent Australian muslims like journalist and broadcaster Waleed Aly, Labor MP Ed Husic, Australia Post CEO Ahmed Fahour and many others make of their native homeland and the attitudes of their fellow Australians.


The Essential Poll findings

Might those who want a blanket ban also realise that boxer Anthony Mundine, rugby league star Corey Paterson, cricket star Usman Khawaja and former Demons star Adem Yze are all Muslims? Would they like their family members banned from coming here?

Setting aside the humane argument against such a terrible idea, when you consider the wider ramifications of a ban on Muslim migration, you realise the economic impacts on Australia would be severe.

Economic disaster

By imposing such a ban, Australia would be denied many highly-skilled immigrants who could add greatly to the collective intellectual and cultural wealth of the country.

As it would be logical to assume that a ban on Muslim migration would also include a ban on Muslim visitors (for holiday, family or business) there would be huge negative impacts on foreign investment, tourism, retailing and many other sector of the economy.

Just ponder this: What would a ban mean for airlines from Muslim countries like Emirates, Qatar Airlines, Etihad? Would they stop flying into our airports and out of them? That would seem logical given most of their passengers won’t be able to get visas to come here in the first place.

Think of the massive impacts on trade and investment – Malaysia and Indonesia are Australia’s 10th and 12th biggest trading partners.

Governments and businesses from rich Middle Eastern countries like Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait invest billions in new Australian hotels, in agriculture, in property development, in shopping malls and in housing. They buy our beef and lamb and fruit and veg as we buy products and services from them

These are some of the world’s richest countries with vasts amount of money. How will they continue to operate in Australia if we tell the world we don’t want their citizens as part of our society? Do you think they will continue to invest or might they simply deploy their funds elsewhere?

Might it also be unreasonable to expect Muslim countries to ban Australians from visiting their shores in response to us denying them access to our?. (Perhaps my South African passport will finally come in handy!).

Will Australians still be able to travel to  exotic and wonderful places like Turkey, Morocco and parts of India or even just make a busines trip to Indonesia or have a beach holiday in Bali?

And what about sport, one of the nation’s greatest attributes?  Where would we play our World Cup soccer qualifying matches against teams like Iraq and Iran and the UAE? And how would we play home cricket matches against Pakistan or Bangladesh or Afghanistan? And would our teams travel to these countries in return?

(I could go on and on)

So I ask, has anyone who wants a blanket ban on Muslims coming to Australia (or the USA for that matter) stopped for just a minute, paused and thought it through?

If they did, they might see the utter stupidity of it more clearly – even if they refuse to accept its blatant bigotry and inhumanity.

Sins of the father: reviewing “The Blood on My Hands” by Shannon O’Leary

front-cover-676x1024The Blood on My Hands is a self-published account of how Shannon O’Leary survived a horrific childhood on a rural holding in Hornsby on the outskirts of Sydney and later Port Macquarie in the 1960s and 1970s.

It recounts the abuse – mental, physical and sexual – O’Leary and her family suffered at the hands of their father, Patrick, a psychopath with multiple personalities (The Devil, The Baby, The Games Man and others) who she witnessed murder numerous people.

O’Leary describes one horrific scene after the other (in one her father hacks a woman’s head off in full view of the author and kicks it like a soccer ball, in another he leads the author and a young woman to an isolated spot near a train station and strangles her with guitar string and then drives a rail spike through her mouth) with only brief moments of domestic normality when her father was either away or not psychotic. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have survived even a fraction of what the author and her family endured year after year.

Dad said he “knew the devil and God” and I realised that they had somehow gotten inside him and they popped out when no one else was around. I didn’t know how they had gotten inside him; I wondered if my father had eaten them at church.

But survive it she did raising a family of five children, obtaining numerous degrees and post-graduate degrees according to her Facebook profile, which notes also that she is an “author of several books of poetry and children’s stories, and has won many awards for song-writing.

It goes on to say: “O’Leary has acted and directed on the stage and on Australian national TV, and she runs her own production company. …and lives with her longtime partner in Sydney, Australia.”

Shannon O’Leary is not her real name. She told me in an email that she adopted a pseudonym at her family’s request.

She adds: “I self published because I was afraid of rejection and wanted to protect myself from criticism. It was psychologically easier for me to press the publish button than wait for some one to say they liked or disliked the book.”

As for her murderous serial killer father, Patrick died on May 16, 2009 a free man, never charged for a single crime.

Of his death when it finally came she writes: “It was as if the bell jar shattered and the clawing, scrambling mouse was free.”

The Blood on My Hands is well written, particularly for a self-published work which has not been professionally edited. It’s a raw, extremely brave memoir with the author sharing in graphic details all the horrendous ordeals, many of them in the creepy, rickety house built by their father. As a reader, I was glad to get to the end which ends at least with the author able to live without fear.

I lived for about six months on a farm near Hornsby, so I can well imagine the rugged wilderness she brings to life with its long grass, deep valleys, caves and venomous snakes.

Even when I lived there, in 2010, it was semi-rural – peppered with small hobby farms and without street lights – so I can well imagine it being almost deserted bushland when the O’Leary family lived there in the Sixties and Seventies, providing the isolation necessary for the evil acts of Patrick O’Leary to go undetected.

Just how much of it is actually true is hard to say. Because of the use of pseudonyms its impossible to research the story in any way while its hard to ignore the fact that the author was a small child, as young as four or five when some of these horrific events occurred.

Based on the memoir, Patrick O’Leary would have killed at least a dozen people all of whom disappeared without a trace.

A note at the end of the book by a “C. MacKenzie” who accompanied O’Leary in 2007 to one of the murder sites she remembered from her childhood and attempted to find evidence of some of the crimes she recalled remarks: “All my efforts to identify possible victims to support the author’s story have so far been fruitless”.

But MacKenzie also highlights the poor record keeping of the police during those times and notes a page one headline in the Sun newspaper from November 1974 that between 1968 and 1972, “299 girls under the age of 16 were missing and never found”.

While memory is never perfect, especially what we remember as children, if even 20 per cent of this book were true (and I believe that figure to be much higher) it would be a truly incredible feat of bravery, courage and triumph of the human spirit to survive it and live as productive a life as O’Leary has.

And so I salute Shannon O’Leary, whoever she may be.

(And many thanks to Kelsey Butts from Book Publicity Services for sending me a review copy)

‘One of These Things First’: the joy of reading Steven Gaines’s bittersweet childhood memoir

one-of-these-things-first-360x544My introduction to the New York writer and journalist Steven Gaines came through a review copy I was sent of his newly published memoir, “One of These Things First”.

Beautifully written, with equal measures of tenderness, sadness, cheeky humour and a big dollop of nostalgia, it’s the story of his difficult Brooklyn childhood and the time he spent in the Payne Whitney psychiatric hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1962, aged just 15.

Being a gay, Jewish boy in Brooklyn in the 1960s did not make life easy for Gaines, who, fearing his “dick and balls might be cut off” because of his homosexuality, kept his predilection for the naked chested lawn-mower boy and Warren Beatty’s topless scene in Splendour in the Grass to himself.

I promised myself that I would not let myself think homo thoughts, yet I could think of nothing else. I was haywire with hormones. I spent most of the time walking around in a semi-hunch trying to hide an erection that wouldn’t subside.

Keeping a dark secret manifested itself in an obssession with stealing strange objects and then an obssessive compulsive counting disorder, culminating in his suicide attempt –  punching his fists through glass in a door at the back of his grandparent’s ladies shop, Rose’s Bras Girdles Sportswear – and his commital to a mental hospital.

Luckily for Gaines, he had a wealthy and loving grandfather – “Gog” whom the book is part-dedicated too – who paid for his stay at the expensive clinic (most famous as having treated Marilyn Monroe). Otherwise he would have ended up in the Hillside Hospital in Queens with its cold bars on the window and air of despair and hopelessness.

As it turned out, Gaines’s stay at Payne Whitney became a turning point in what up until then had been a very unhappy and lonely childhood, with constant reminders that he would come to “no good” and a difficult (to put it mildly) father who referred to his son as a “nut job”.

Gaines emerged from Payne Whitney with a degree of self-acceptance and self-worth that must surely have saved his life, and also inspired his career as a writer and journalist.

Here he found acceptance and friendship among the other “crazies” including the film and theatre critic Richard Halliday, who turns out to be the husband of Broadway star Mary Martin, one of Gaines’s childhood idols.

Even his Freudian therapy with the kindly and good-intentioned Dr Myers who attempted to ‘cure him’ of his homosexuality, ultimately proved beneficial because for the first time there was someone who “seemed interested in what I had to say”.

Gaines has an endearing obsession with movies and the book is peppered with references to his favourite films – Gone with Wind, Lust for Life, Gaslight and Marty and trivia about which actor or actress received an Oscar nomination or Academy Award.

He tells Dr Myers his favourite film is Splendour in the Grass, starring Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, which he saw 11 times – not because he related to Natalie Wood’s character who has a nervous breakdown, but because he got to see Warren Beatty with his shirt off.

The book is full of these painfully honest and darkly funny insights into himself as a yong man. It’s also full of the colourful characters – both good and bad – that shaped his young Jewish life for the better and for the worse, set among Borough Park, “the cognac of Brooklyn, the potent and flavorful essence” a ghetto-like place of immigrant Jews that no longer exists

Reading “One of These Things First”reminded me why I loved movies like Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, Woody Allen movies, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm with their quasi-tragic Jewish humour and quintessentially Jewish characters: the overbearing mother, the neurotic, the obsessive personality, the self-made man, the kids bound for decades of “strict Freudian analysis”.

Oh Brooklyn, my Brooklyn. Life could offer no richer lesson than to simply grow up there. I wouldn’t have it any other way, not for any suburban childhood or silver-spoon, Upper East Side private school education.

Reading about his life, I felt a connection with Steven Gaines that encompassed our  Jewishness, our capacity for mental disintegration (I suffered for a time from debilitating anxiety attacks and thought I was literally going mad), shared love of movie trivia and nostalgia for the people and places from our childhood.

Gaines-HIFF3After finishing the book, I had a peak around Gaines personal website. He is a prolific writer, the author of dozens of books including  biographies of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Alice Cooper and who has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and the New York Times.

I especially like his website photo. It shows Gaines, middle-aged but still youthful with a cherub like grin, and suggests a man of warmth, intelligence, kindness and cheekiness, character traits which were also part of the make-up of the 15-year-old boy in his memoir, who came of age during his stay at Payne Whitney.

Ted Bundy and I: Reviewing Ann Rule’s true crime classic, “The Stranger Beside me”

stranger beside meAmong the best books ever written about true crime and serial murder must surely be Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, about the serial killer Ted Bundy.

A former Seattle police officer and then regular contributor to true crime magazines as she struggled to raise four kids, Rule was commissioned to write the book that became The Stranger Beside Me  as the spate of murders of young, attractive girls grew longer and more baffling.

Paid a small advance, Rule was told her book would only be published if the murderer was caught.

No one at first believed that Ted Bundy, the charming, intelligent, good-looking young law student was capable of such horrendous crimes.

This included Ann Rule herself, who by the most incredible of coincidences had worked night shifts with Ted Bundy at a crisis centre in Seattle in the early 1970s.

But by the time Ted Bundy was founded guilty and sentenced to death in a Florida court, she had come to the awful realisation that the man who sat in the cubicle beside her night after night in Seattle,  saving the lives of those contemplating suicide, was also a monster.

If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives, he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it.

Apart from telling the story of Ted Bundy  and his awful crimes, The Stranger Beside Me, also narrates Ann Rules own personal journey into the ‘Heart of Darkness’.

ted bundy mugshot

Ted Bundy mugshot

The truth, as Rule found out, was that Ted Bundy, driven by a uncontrolable and never quite explained rage had used his facade of good looks and charm to bludgeon, rape and mutilate dozens perhaps over a hundred young women across America in the 1970s.

Many victims were attacked as they slept in their beds on college campuses, others were lured into Ted Bundy’s infamous beige VW Beetle as he masqueraded as someone with his arm or leg in a cast, struggling to carry his possessions.

Just before his execution in Florida in 1989, Bundy confessed to 30 murders committed  between 1974 and 1980 But many believe, and Bundy hinted himself, that the true total was much higher, perhaps over 100.

Before that, despite a mountain of evidence linking him to many murders (though much of it circumstanstial) he claimed he was innocent of any of the crimes. Often defending himself at his televised  Florida trial, he was seen by many as charismatic, brilliant and charming, which only added to the myth of his innocence.

In the end Rule, who maintained a sporadic correspondence with Ted Bundy through phone calls and letters from the time he was first arrested in Utah until his conviction and death sentencing in Florida, came to see through the facade, to see that she, like so many others, had been conned.

ann rule

Ann Rule

No one, except perhaps his long-standing girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (called Meg Anders in the book) had a more personal insight into Ted Bundy and in the annals of crime writing there are few who has painted such a three-dimensional portrait of serial killer as Ann Rule.

For she knew both Teds: the kind, sensitive, caring charmer and the psycopathic manipulator.

She describes Ted as “brilliant, a student of distinction, witty, glib and persuasive” who loved “French cuisine, good white wine and gourmet cooking. He loved Mozart and obscure foreign films” and who “knew exactly when to send flowers and sentimental cards” and whose “poems of love were tender and romantic”.

And yet Ted “loved things more than he loved people” who could feel more compassion for inanimate objects than he could ever feel for another human being.

On the surface Ted Bundy was the very epitome of a successful man. Inside, it was all ashes. For Ted had gone through life terribly crippled, like a man who is deaf, or blind or paralyzed. Ted has no conscience.

There’s a video you can watch on YouTube of Ted Bundy’s final interview with Dr James Dobson,  given the evening before he was executed in January in 1980, when his appeals and luck finally ran out.

In it he tries to explain the reasons for his crimes as being due to the combined influences of pornography, alcohol and violence in true crime detective magazines.

This video and shorter versions of it has been watched millions of times of YouTube, which says something about the public’s fascination with Ted Bundy, who  remains in the news, 36 years after his death at the electric chair. (An article appeared as recently as June 30 about a new  book “I Survived Ted Bundy” published recently on

Rule says of this final interview that Ted was lying and manipulating to the very end, remembering a letter that he wrote her where he dismissed True Crime magazines as trash:  “Who in the world reads these publications?” he asked her.

“The blunt fact is that Ted Bundy was a liar. He lied most of his life, and I think he lied at the end,” Rule wrote. But, she said, Ted’s final performance accomplished one thing that troubled her:

Sensitive, intelligent, kind young women wrote or called me to say that they were deeply depressed because Ted was dead. One college student had watched the Dobson tape on television and felt moved to send flowers to the funeral parlour where Ted’s body had been taken. “He wouldn’t have hurt me,” she said. “All he needed was some kindness. I know he wouldn’t have hurt me…”

ted bundy trial

The ‘other Ted’: The famous enraged photo  of Ted Bundy at his Florida trial

There is nothing in ‘The Stranger Beside Me that glamourises Ted Bundy or turns him into the folk hero others made him out to be, especially after his daring escape from a Colorado jail in 1977, while facing kidnapping charges.

Rule stresses time and time again that whatever the tragedy of Ted Bundy’s life – who he might have been, what he become in the end – the real tragedy were all his innocent victims whose lives he ended. Indeed, she tells with great compassion the story of each of his many victims, of who they were and who they might have been.

And yet, she could never quite shake the memory of the Ted she knew before he became the serial killer ‘Ted Bundy’ something which became impossible following the publication and huge success of The Stranger Beside Me in 1980.

Ann Rule passed away on July 26 last year, aged 83 taking with her the title of America’s queen of true crime.

She publishing three dozen crime books after The Stranger Beside Me, but it remained her signature work with fans writing to her about it and asking questions about her and Ted Bundy decades later.

In an update to the book published in 2000 (I suggest downloading the Kindle version which has all the numerous updates since 1980), Rule writes:

It has been a quarter of a century since the day Ted Bundy called to ask for my help and to tell me that he was a suspect in the disappearance of more than a dozen young women…time and time again, I have naively believed the fascination with Ted would diminish and that I would never have to think about him again. I have long since accepted that I will be answering questions about him until the end of my days.