Helter Skelter ~ by Vincent Burliest

If you didn’t guess this already, I’m a True Crime fan (not a buff) and finally reading Helter Skelter in spite my natural disinclination to read sensationalist hyper-popularized material.  I’m very interested in the procedural aspect and the trials.  I think I’ve pretty well got the gist of how the “Family” lived from Member of the Family by Dianne Lake (2017) which I just recently finished.  

Helter Skelter: The True Story of The Manson Murders 
By Vincent Bugliosi 
1974 – 598 pages 
Read by Scott Brick  (2011) 26h 29m
Rating – 9.5 / true crime – memoir
(Both read and listened) 

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi is a classic in the True Crime genre. It’s up there with the best of them, but had I ever read it?  Nooooooo.  (See below for my list of the Bests – while reading I got curious and made a list of the best I’ve read.)  Fwiw, Bugliosi did a lot of the investigating for the prosecution’s case or he assigned it.  And Curt Gentry was a “partner writer” here with his name on the cover. Bugliosi, the author, was the prosecution’s lead District Attorney.  

This book was first published in 1974, a full 3 years after the trials ended, but it’s thorough and even in 2017, almost 50 years later, generally considered the best book on the subject. Since Manson’s death another wave of books has come on the market and we’ll see if any are really good. I’m sure sure they are, and they’ll include more epilogue-type material, but it would be very hard to do what Bugliosi did in Helter Skelter.  

 At age 83, Manson had been suffering from colon cancer for about a year prior to his death in a Bakersfield hospital on November 11 of 2017. He had spent almost 50 years behind bars and was considered incarcerated at the time. Susan Atkins died while serving time in a California women’s facility in 2009. She had spent 40 years behind bars. Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel have now been in prison for over 50 years. And Tex Watson who was tried and found guilty a bit later but has served just as long and is still there at age 77.  These 5 members of the family are regularly denied parole.

Linda Kasabian and Dianne Lock were involved but given immunity in exchange for testimony, Linda died in 2023 and Dianne, only 14 at the time, pretty successfully got through it all and tried to go on with her life. She actually published a memoir in 2017.  (Member of the Family by Dianne Lake)  https://mybecky.blog/2023/05/20/member-of-the-family-by-dianne-lake/

But it’s been well over 50 years since the murders and trials (and terror in LA) took place and there have been dozens of books as well as movies and news reports and so on about all aspects of the Tate-La Bianca murders, the Manson family, the trials and finally the paroles and deaths well as tangential topics. I think it’s no coincidence that Helter Skelter was re-released October 24, 2017 with Charles Manson on his deathbed to pass away only 3 weeks later. There is both an Epilogue and an Afterwards in this edition.  

The first 150 pages of Helter Skelter, a 598 page Kindle edition, are an overview of what all happened and who was involved until November 18, 1969 when Bugliosi got the news that he was assigned to the case. The central murders occurred on August 8 (Tate) and 9 (La Bianca) , 1969 but they weren’t put together as one case by detectives until mid-October of 1969,  The suspects (at the time) were arrested in October

The pre-trial events and the trial (there was only one formal trial for all 4 defendants but it took from June 15 until November 19 of 1970  and it was bizarre and dangerous at times.) The jury was sequested in the Ambassador Hotel for 8.5 months. 

 It’s nicely written and a page-turning account from Bugliosi’s point of view and it covers a LOT of ground, especially about the three girls who were arrested and tried with Manson,  Van Houghton,  It seems as though Bugliosi is very hard on the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and more appreciative of the smaller Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD).  

Helter Skelter is excellent but there’s a much more recent book which claims there was some underhandedness on the part of the detectives which Bugliosi did not report and he’s sketchy on other things.  I can understand more than a couple people or groups who might have reason to write their own book with a different bias. The book “Chaos” by Tom O’Neill is said to present more than a few alternatives to many aspects which were apparently discounted by all. I might just read it before too long. 

This one though is chock fulll of details – names, places, conversations, hunts for good witness,  arrests, reports, etc.  

This is a good article on the psychology of the girls who followed Manson: https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/8/8/20757917/manson-girls-explained


CNN Chronology

The narrator, Scott Brick, is great on procedurals and creating massive tension. 

Again    great metaphors –  “Like the shock waves from an earthquake, news of the murders spread.” (LA’s earthquakes makes a delicious metaphor)  – page 18 (Kindle)


AND!!!!   My own list of 10 best True Crime Books 

1.  In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
2. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
3.  Columbine, by Dave Cullen
4. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi 
5.  I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara
6. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt
7. Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann
8 The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
9. American Predator by Maureen Callahan, Amy Landon, et al.
10 Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe}
11 (for good measure),  Bad Blood by John Carreyou, A
And Honorable mention to the books of Ann Rule and Jack Olsen  

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