Among 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’.
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 of young woman 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.
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 Amazon.com).
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…”
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.