Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Once Upon A Crime . . .

by Vanessa Leggett

This month is the 39th anniversary of the Manson slayings. When Helter Skelter was published in 1974, I was one of countless children entering grade school—as the child of Roman Polanski would have been, had his pregnant wife Sharon Tate not been murdered.

I was not old enough to read Helter Skelter during its first print run. In fact, I have no actual recollection of that crime or of any others detailed in true-crime books that inspired me. What I can recall are three of my favorite opening paragraphs from classics in the genre:

"During the night, an early spring rain washed the city and now, at dawn, the air was sweet and heavy. Remnants of fog still held to the pavements of Houston, rolling across the streets like cobweb tumbleweeds, and the windshields of early commuters were misted and dangerous. The morning seemed sad, of little promise." (Thomas Thompson, Blood and Money)

"The Village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there.' Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them." (Truman Capote, In Cold Blood)

And, finally, the night that hatred painted the “love house” at 10050 Cielo Drive:

"It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon." (Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter)

Each of these haunting openings taught me something about setting. The first two could have come from any novel. Okay, not any novel. The point is that the first paragraphs of Blood and Money and In Cold Blood were written in the style of fiction. What made the opening of Helter Skelter most chilling was its skillful blend of fact and imagination.

A maniac bent on murder would not likely remember—much less describe—the sound of "ice rattling in cocktail shakers." The magic of this opening lies in the promise of the pages to follow: "one of the killers would later say . . ." And so we turn the page.

Since I read that book, whenever I hear the music of a martini mixer on a summer evening, I don't think of the drink. I remember Helter Skelter and that unquiet night on August 8, 1969.

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