Ann Rule, Kate Summerscale: two masters of the art of true crime writing

The last two books I read were both in the true crime genre, and brilliant examples of writers at the top of their craft.

First I read Ann Rule’s Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases, a collection of mostly cold case investigations that take place around the Seattle area on America’s west coast,

After finishing it, I then stepped back 160-odd years and into an entirely different landscape, of Victorian England and the ghastly murder of a three-year old boy in a large manor house in the countryside and the London detective recruited to solve it in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

Ann Rule, who died in 2015 aged 83, started her career as a law enforcement officer for the Seattle Police Department, wrote for True Detective magazine under a pen name and then established herself as the Queen of American true crime writing with a long career of best sellers. She is most famous for The Stranger Beside Me published in 1980, her sensational account of her charming, handsome friend Ted, whom she met while working at a Seattle suicide crisis hotline, who turned out to be serial killer Ted Bundy.

Ann Rule’s books are motivated by a strong desire for justice for the victims and their families, especially those heart-wrenching cases that are never solved.

Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases is dedicated to “everyone who has lost someone they love, never to find them – or learn the reasons they vanished”.

Rule goes onto explain, in a brief introduction to the first story in the book “North to Alaska” that when she chooses which cases to write about, they are almost always selected from the Cold Case departments of homicide divisions.

“There is something infinitely satisfying about finding killers long after they have become confident that they have walked away free,” Rule writes.

The two long stories in Don’t Look Behind You – “North to Alaska” and “Too Late for the Fair” both track cold case investigations: the former about the disappearance of charismatic meat salesman Joe Tarricone, and the second about Joanne Hansen, a young mother locked in an abusive marriage who vanished one day, never to be seen or heard from again.

Rule is a master of plot, narrative and pace: she is a natural and gifted storyteller. While her stories are rich with procedural detail – the collection of evidence, investigating leads – and the small steps taken by investigators to unravel decades old crimes, they never becoming boring or plodding.

It’s not hard to see why she became a best selling popular writer of true crime: stories are told in an uncomplicated, linear way with plenty of direct dialogue. She brings characters to life on the page, both the perpetrators and the victims, the latter for whom she displays the greatest of empathy.

She once said of her motivation to write about true crime: “I wanted to know why some kids grew up to be criminals and why other people didn’t. That is still the main thrust behind my books: I want to know why these things happen, and so do my readers,”

Apart from these two books – The Stranger Beside Me and Don’t Look Behind You – I have also read Rule’s Lust Killer, about the shoe fetishist and necrophiliac serial killer Jerome Brudos.

I highly recommend all of them if you enjoy reading, listening to or watching true crime stories. They’re an easy read, but also engrossing and thought-provoking.

Kate Summerscale is cut from a far more literary cloth than Rule, but none the less entertaining a writer.

In the case of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – the only book of hers I have read – Summerscale writes from a much broader historical and social perspective, producing in the words of the great spy novelist John le Carre called “a classic of the finest documentary writing”.

Born in London in 1965, but brought up also in Japan and Chile, Summerscale attended Oxford University and then California’s Stanford University, where she obtained a masters in journalism. She worked at a number of English newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and Independent, whilst establishing herself as a writer with an award-winning biography about eccentric speedboat racer Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs.

She then wrote The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which won The Samuel Johnson Prize (since renamed the Baillie Gifford Prize), Britain’s top book award for non-fiction writing. It was also made into an ITV television series, which unfortunately seems very hard to track down.

I’ve actually read the book twice, but enjoyed it just as much the second time round.

It’s not as easy a book to read as the pacier novels of Ann Rule, but if your penchant is for slowly unravelling, procedural crime shows like Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect or Unforgotten I think you’ll immensely enjoy reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

The “Mr Whicher” refers to Jonathan or “Jack” Whicher, one of the first eight police detectives who joined a newly created branch of the London Metropolitan Police, at Scotland Yard in 1842. Whicher was sent from London to the village of Rode, near Trowbridge in the county of Wiltshire to solve the most famous crime of the era, the murder of three-year-old Francis Saville Kent in a stately country home called Road Hill House.

Summerscale does not just tell the story of the Kent family and the terrible events of the night of Friday 29th of June 1860 at Road Hill House, when the young boy’s body was discovered shoved down a privy (outside toilet), his throat cut, and the efforts of Whicher, the most brilliant detective of his day, to solve the baffling crime.

She captures the whole zeitgeist of that time – the public’s fascination with the crime (especially since it occurred in the country home of a wealthy, upper class family) fueled by a legion of city and country daily newspapers that reported on its every detail, theory and rumour.

“While the press and the public condemned Whicher’s prurient, impertinent speculations, they freely made their own,” Summerscale writes, capturing the fascination with the case that gripped the country from the big cities to farming villages, and its distrust of the new class of detectives.

As Summerscale explains in her wonderfully researched book, the crime was the first “whoddunit” set in a quintessential country home, in which all the suspects were inside the house: circumstances which created the template for hundreds of fictional detective stories, movies and TV shows including Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders.

Not surprisingly, the case influenced many subsequent Victorian novels, captured the attention of the greatest writer of the times Charles Dickens, a friend and admirer of Jack Whicher. Dickens, like everyone else had his own (wrong) theories about who the murderer was.

There are so many fascinating aspects to this book, not least of which is the crime itself, there’s the story of the brilliant career of Jack Whicher, and how the immense pressure to solve the Road Hill House murder almost finished him off, the growing power of daily newspapers to shape public consciousness and the emerging art of crime detection.

Part true crime, part historical and social commentary, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is non-fiction writing at its finest and a must-read in my opinion.

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