The fiftieth anniversary of the horrific Manson Family murders is this week, on Friday. In the annals of true crime, the case will always loom large. But as Kevin Mims brings out in this post, the murders also had a profound effect on crime fiction, especially following the publication of Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s nonfiction book about the case, Helter Skelter. A widely published essayist and a short-story writer for EQMM and AHMM, Kevin frequently contributes to this site. —Janet Hutchings
Most popular-fiction enthusiasts would probably agree that it was Thomas Harris who triggered the ongoing vogue for novels about serial killers. There were serial killers in fiction long before Harris published The Red Dragon in 1981, but none of them ever became the kind of cultural juggernaut that Hannibal Lecter has become, thanks both to The Red Dragon and to its immediate sequel, The Silence of the Lambs, and with a lot of help from their Hollywood incarnations. But this essay isn’t about Thomas Harris. It is about Shane Stevens, who began working in the serial-killer genre a few years before Harris did. He wrote several crime novels, but his masterpiece is probably By Reason of Insanity, a serial-killer thriller that arrived in bookstores forty years ago, in 1979, two years before The Red Dragon arrived in November of 1981.
By Reason of Insanity (hereinafter abbreviated as BROI) is a far more ambitious novel than The Red Dragon, which is itself a crazily ambitious novel. BROI covers about a 25-year time period, from the late 1940s to the mid 1970s. It has at least a dozen major characters and dozens of minor ones. Stevens’s two main characters, are Thomas Bishop, a deranged serial killer who manages to keep his identity concealed throughout much of his crime spree, and Adam Kenton, an investigative journalist who seeks to uncover the identity of said serial killer. Shane Stevens, as the saying goes, did his homework. The book is not a slapdash attempt to make easy money in the lucrative world of pop fiction. It begins with the execution of real-life San Quentin death-row inmate Caryl Chessman on May 2, 1960. The story then backtracks to give us a long explanation of how Chessman came to be on death row despite never having killed anyone (he was a rapist and a thief). His death sentence scandalized liberals not only throughout America but much of the world. Protests were held at U.S. embassies around the globe. At one point the Eisenhower administration is said to have asked California Governor Pat Brown to temporarily stay the execution so as to ease tensions during a presidential visit to South America. Stevens then takes us even further back, to when Chessman was still a free man, cruising the lovers lanes of southern California and looking for young couples he could rob and whose female members he could rape. One of Stevens’s cleverest conceits is that his villain, Thomas Bishop, is the illegitimate child of Chessman and one of his rape victims. This is one of many points in the book where Stevens demonstrates more interest in the ravages that crime can wreak upon the human psyche than any run-of-the-mill pop-fictioneer would ever likely evince. Stevens is interested not only in the ways that a crime can damage the lives and minds of its direct victims but also the lives and minds of their offspring as well. Sara Bishop, Chessman’s victim and Thomas’s mother, was a damaged woman long before being raped by Chessman. She was a victim of child sexual abuse, acquaintance rape, and domestic violence before she ever crossed paths with “the Red Light Bandit” as Chessman was popularly known (the nickname suggests that his property crimes were a greater outrage to polite society than his crimes against the female body). Stevens does an excellent job of showing how a woman like Sara might be sought out by the likes of Chessman. And why a woman who has been abused all her life might be more inclined to resign herself to one more sexual assault and to not report it to the police afterwards rather than to put up a fight and, when that fails, insist on getting some vindication from the legal system afterwards. Sara manages to convince her boyfriend (who was locked in the trunk of the car during the rape) that Chessman was impotent and failed to consummate his crime. She insists on making love with the boyfriend that very night so that, if she becomes pregnant, she can believably insist that he is the father. She does, indeed, become pregnant, and the boyfriend, Harry Owens, reluctantly marries her. Again, Stevens is good at showing how this marriage and pregnancy, both the fruit of a poisonous tree, are also victims of Chessman’s criminal behavior. The marriage soon falls apart and Sara, left to raise Thomas alone, takes out her anger at the entire male gender on him. When he becomes a man, he’ll repay the favor in spades by taking out his anger on his numerous female victims, all of whom serve as stand-ins for his mother (the first victim of his murderous spree). Before dumping Harry Owens, Sara tries to hurt him by telling him that Caryl Chessman is the true father of their son. Enraged by this, Harry Owens himself soon drifts into a life of crime and is eventually killed in a botched armored-car robbery. Stevens understands that crime and abuse are usually continuums, part of a repeating cycle, rather than random stand-alone events.
It may seem as though I have fatally spoiled the plot for you, but we’re barely past the prologue of this long novel (my mass-market paperback copy has nearly 600 pages of tiny print). It’s a commonplace of serial-killer novels to give the villain some sort of childhood trauma that explains his later conversion to a homicidal maniac. But Stevens doesn’t give Thomas Bishop a cursory backstory. He delves deeply not only into Bishop’s own background but also into the background of all three of his parents (Sara Bishop and the two men who may or may not have fathered her child). Stevens gives even many of his secondary characters moving backstories. Some of Bishop’s initial victims are lonely women of a certain age whose frustrated maternal longings make them susceptible to a man seeking to kill mother substitutes. Others are young women whose genteel upbringings make them entirely too trusting of earnest-seeming young men. Others still are women, like his own mother, so hard-used by life that they are willing to risk selling their bodies to strangers in order to keep a roof over their heads. At times, Stevens even delves into the lives of some of these victims’ surviving family members (one father is so distraught that he hires a mafia hit man to kill Bishop).
Even more impressive than these intimate close-ups is the way Stevens continually zooms out to show how various elements of American society—the press, politicians, government bureaucracies—hypocritically denounce crime and criminals while also symbiotically benefitting from the fear and hysteria they whip up. A state senator in Sacramento uses the public’s fear of Bishop (then believed to be an escaped criminal named Vincent Mungo, whose identity Bishop stole after killing him) to bolster his own anticrime, pro–capital-punishment bona fides. Although he denounces “Mungo” at every opportunity, Senator Stoner also hopes to harness the public’s fear of the serial killer and ride it all the way to Washington, D.C. He panics when he thinks Mungo might actually bring his crime spree to a voluntary close. Various journalistic venues use Mungo to increase their circulation and bump up their Nielsen ratings. A Berkeley professor who fancies himself an expert on the criminal mind hopes to ride the wave of Mungo hysteria to academic superstardom. He makes a few brilliant deductions about Mungo’s true identity, but he withholds them from the police because a premature end to the killing spree might weaken the book he plans to write.
Mungo/Bishop starts out as a purely California phenomenon. Stevens links him directly not only to Chessman but to Charles Manson (about whom, more later). After killing Mungo and taking his identity (warning: massive spoilers ahead) Bishop commits a few more killings in northern California before he heads for southern California and the land of his birth. Believing himself to be the son of Caryl Chessman, Bishop hopes to surpass his father’s criminal activities in La-La Land. He succeeds in short order and then lights out for Las Vegas, where his spree continues, and then on to Texas, to Chicago, and then finally to the American Mecca of New York City, where he hopes to make his name as the greatest American serial killer of all time.
For hundreds of pages Stevens manages to weave together tales of Bishop’s unfortunate and socially insignificant victims with tales of how the killing spree affects larger aspects of American society, from the Mafia to a logging conglomerate in the Pacific Northwest (I kid you not) to the White House. In fact, Richard Nixon eventually takes on a speaking role in the story. Embroiled in the Watergate scandal and desperate to discredit the press, Nixon urges his underlings to blame a hostile publication (Newstime, obviously meant to evoke both Newsweek and Time magazines) for the rise of Mungo/Bishop to folkloric status. Meanwhile, Nixon fears that the press, while researching Mungo/Bishop’s background, will learn of Nixon’s own connection to Chessman (Stevens’s theory is that Nixon was responsible for lobbying Pat Brown for a stay of Chessman’s execution on behalf of the Eisenhower administration; it’s a testament to Stevens’s gifts as a storyteller than I never doubted this theory) and try to embarrass him with it.
As I write this, the New York Times website is featuring a newly posted story about the sensational Central Park Five rape case headlined “How a City in Fear Brutalized the Central Park Five.” The story, about the way a lurid crime can cause an entire city to lose its collective mind, would have come as no surprise to Shane Stevens (who died in 2007). He brilliantly documented the phenomenon way back in 1979, a decade before the famous attack on a Central Park jogger.
One indication that this novel was written in the immediate aftermath of Watergate and the release of the film All The President’s Men is the fact that the hero of the novel isn’t a cop or an FBI man but Adam Kenton, a crusading investigative journalist for Newstime magazine. For a while, in the mid to late 1970s, journalists were actually widely respected as a stay against corrupt government officials. Eventually politicians would fight back and portray the press as “the enemy of the people.”
But though Adam Kenton isn’t an FBI profiler like Will Graham, the hero of Thomas Harris’s The Red Dragon, he possesses many of the same qualities. Wikipedia describes Graham thusly:
an intellectually-gifted and highly-esteemed former FBI profiler, who has an eidetic memory, genius-level intellect, and the ability to empathize with the mindset and mentality of both psychopaths and sociopaths, which adversely affects his own mental psyche.
In BROI, written approximately four years before The Red Dragon, Stevens writes this about Adam Kenton:
Of all the traits that combined in Adam Kenton to make him the best investigative reporter on the biggest newsmagazine staff in the country, traits that had in a brief decade brought him a certain measure of renown and respect . . . perhaps the most important was his ability to adapt himself to the roles of those from whom he sought information. In mannerisms and speech he seemed to blend into their public identities. His sympathetic understanding and acceptance almost invariably prompted a flow of confidences not normally given to reporters . . . This metaphoric quality was coupled with an intense concentration that often enabled him to think like his adversaries. He constantly asked himself the question: What would they do next? Or: Why did they do that? His guess was usually correct. Only it wasn’t ever just a guess but more of an instinctive leap into their minds. This mental bit of magic, grounded in voluminous information and a brilliant imagination, probably more than anything else had led to the name of Superman given him buy his peers, not without a strong touch of envy.
But, like Will Graham, Kenton pays a price for this supernatural gift of empathy. He’s a failure at personal relationships, especially with women. He has put himself into the minds of so many unsavory and unscrupulous people that he fears he has become one of them and is therefore unfit for decent company and loving relationships.
There are also parallels between BROI and Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs. The latter novel features a serial killer (nicknamed Buffalo Bill) whose born name is Jame Gumb (his alcoholic prostitute mother misspelled “James” on the birth certificate). Gumb was born in California on October 25, 1949. Thomas Bishop was born in California on April 30, 1948. Gumb’s first murder victims are the grandparents who raised him and whom he kills on a whim one day while still a child. Bishop’s first murder victim is the mother who raised him and whom he kills on a whim one day while still a child. Gumb murders women and dresses up in female skin suits made from their dead bodies. At one point, Thomas Bishop begins dressing as a female in order to make it easier for him to sneak up on women and murder them. Stupid coincidences abound in both books. Other commenters have noted the silly coincidence of Hannibal Lecter’s parents giving him the only name in the world that rhymes with “cannibal,” thus giving the character a media-ready nickname (“Hannibal the Cannibal”) when he begins eating people. Likewise, Thomas Bishop, who believes he is the son of Caryl Chessman, and who signs some of his murder scenes “Chess Man,” has a last name that is, lo and behold, the name of a chess piece.
This is not to suggest that Harris plagiarized Stevens. The Hannibal Lecter novels bear only superficial resemblances to BROI. As far as I can tell, not a single sentence of Stevens’s book appears in any of Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels. There’s also no question that Harris is the better writer. But Stevens came so frustratingly close to writing the Great American Serial Killer Novel that I can only imagine he must have been jealous of the acclaim heaped upon The Red Dragon and, later, The Silence of the Lambs. So why didn’t Stevens win the same kind of acclaim? Several reasons come to mind, one of them already stated: he wasn’t as good a writer as Thomas Harris. Which is not to say that he’s an awful writer. Some of the book’s prose could have come straight from a Raymond Chandler novel:
February is a bad month in Los Angeles and gets worse towards the end. On this dark February morning the rain had been falling steadily since midnight. The sky was an angry gray and even the sun had trouble finding the city. In the business areas people stumbled into offices and stores soaked to the skin. Everywhere houses leaked, lawns drowned, and new foundations settled. It was February 22, 1952, the day six men had picked to rob Overland Pacific, the country’s biggest armored-car company, of a million dollars.
The problem with Stevens’s writing is that it is inconsistent. It runs the gamut from dull journalese, to comically lurid pulp, to subtle and surprisingly insightful. At times, he produces weird rhymes that I can only assume are accidental:
He had to be found. Alive or dead, the king of the jungle wanted his head.
The book contains one of my all-time favorite pieces of pulpy prose. Just two sentences long, it’s a masterpiece of Penthouse-style sex writing:
She had a roller-coaster body and he had his ticket right in his pants. He would ride her as long as the park was open.
Amazingly, that observation comes from the point of view of a major secondary character whose storyline I haven’t even mentioned before, a fifty-something criminal and ex-cellmate of Caryl Chessman’s as he contemplates a night of sex with a teenage girl. Which suggests another major problem with the novel. It’s just too damned ambitious. There are way too many secondary and tertiary characters (and whatever comes after tertiary). There are plots and subplots (and whatever comes after subplots). Also the body count is just too high to be believable. Sure, real-life serial killers have run up higher body counts, but Mungo/Bishop kills women with a knife, and he does them one at a time, usually after courting them for a few days. I doubt if Mick Jagger could have lured as many women into his home as Mungo/Bishop is able to lure into his various apartments over a single New York autumn. This becomes even less believable when just about everyone in the city becomes aware that their hometown is being terrorized by a crazed killer who preys on women. Do Mungo/Bishop’s victims never pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV?
Another problem is that Stevens often graphically describes the rape, torture, murder, and dismemberment of Mungo/Bishop’s victims. He does this ad nauseam. Thus he gets to play it both ways. His novel purports to abhor serial killers and the mistreatment of women but he also indulges the appetites of any readers who may get off on that kind of stuff.
Stevens’s story also has plot holes that beggar belief. For instance Vincent Mungo and Thomas Bishop meet in an asylum for the criminally insane where they are both serving time. And yet, unbelievably, neither of them has ever been fingerprinted. I realize that law-enforcement authorities back then didn’t have the kind of DNA-detecting equipment available to the authorities today, but certainly two murderers would have been fingerprinted at some point in their lives!
While still in the asylum Bishop plans to talk Mungo into joining him in his escape plan and then killing him after they get out and destroying the dead man’s face and putting his own watch and ring on the body so that the police will think the dead man is Bishop. But because Bishop has a distinctive scar on his shoulder it is important that, months before the escape attempt, he inflict the same kind of damage to Mungo’s shoulder, so that the shoulder will have scarred over in a similar fashion by the time they find Mungo’s body. Bishop somehow manages to talk Mungo into letting him cut his shoulder, feeding him some story about how it will make them blood brothers. Nothing about this rang true.
Stevens’s biggest mistake, in my opinion, is that he devotes so much of the novel to the attempts by various people and law enforcement agencies to ferret out the real identity of the killer who the press is calling Vincent Mungo. Because the reader knows from the start that Mungo is actually Bishop, it becomes tiresome to have so many characters constantly coming to the conclusion that Mungo can’t be the real killer. Several of these people have no difficulty entertaining the notion that Thomas Bishop, the convict who escaped the asylum with Mungo, is the real killer and that Mungo is the disfigured dead man who has been identified as Bishop. But then some inconvenient fact (the shoulder scar, for instance) will come along to derail them from this line of thinking. Several of them will return to this hypothesis again and again, only to reject it again and again, and it becomes tedious in the extreme. When at long last everyone finally accepts the fact that Mungo is actually Bishop, my feeling wasn’t exhilaration or excitement but merely relief that this most repetitious of plot threads had finally been concluded.
There is actually much to admire in BROI, and Stevens has at least one high-profile admirer. In an afterward to his novel The Dark Half, Stephen King acknowledges his debt to Stevens. He mentions three of Stevens’s novels—Rat Pack, The Anvil Chorus, and BROI—and says: “These works, where the so-called ‘criminal mind’ and a condition of irredeemable psychosis interweave to create their own closed system of perfect evil, are three of the finest novels ever written about the dark side of the American dream. They are, in their own way, as striking as Frank Norris’s McTeague or Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. I recommend them unreservedly . . . but only readers with strong stomachs and stronger nerves need apply.”
In a March 24, 1991, overview of the hyper-violent horror subgenre known as “splatterpunk,” book critic Ken Tucker reserved his praise for only two authors:
But so far, only two writers have made literature out of this theme, neither of them splatterpunks. Thomas Harris spends as much time digging into the thoughts of horror’s victims as those of its perpetrators; in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Mr. Harris created a far more intricate hero in the Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Clarice Starling than the conventions of splatterpunk have yet generated. Less well-known is Shane Stevens, whose extraordinary 1979 novel, “By Reason of Insanity,” is a modulated, finely written tale that gets farther inside the mind of a serial killer than most of us may want to go. Both of these writers allow for something the splatterpunks do not: the portrayal of recognizable human beings—neither gonzo kill-freaks nor relentless revenge-robots—whose fear and vulnerability are rendered with sympathy, not contempt.
Unfortunately for Stevens, the praise from King and Tucker came more than ten years after the publication of BROI. At the time of its release, Kirkus Reviews called Stevens’s novel “an interminable kill-a-thon” and opined that it was “Bloody, vicious pulp–unredeemed by a few vivid scenes and some debates on capital punishment and journalism ethics, amateurishly plotted (gross coincidence abounding), and padded out to numbing, sickening length.”
I hate to be one of those journalists who splits the difference in every debate, believing that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes, but in this case I think that’s a fair assessment. BROI has many virtues, but the equal of McTeague or Sister Carrie it is not. Yet I also think the Kirkus review is grossly unfair. It’s the kind of review you give to a derivative novel that appears to have been hacked out quickly in order to earn an easy buck. Say what you will about BROI, I don’t think any fair reader could come away from it believing that Stevens was after a quick paycheck. It is a long novel with dozens and dozens of characters, many of whom have complicated backstories, a canvas that stretches from Sacramento to Miami, a timeline that stretches from the Truman era to the Watergate era. To me it feels like a real passion project. Had it been as polished as The Red Dragon, it might have gotten a little more love from the press and a lot more love from the reading public. As it is, it’s a cult novel. These days, it’s available electronically but otherwise out of print. Despite that, it has eighty reader reviews at Amazon.com, eighty-five percent of which carry either five- or four-star ratings. Most of those reviewers seem to share Stephen King’s opinion of the book. At least one reader has compared it favorably with Crime and Punishment. Others call it among the scariest books they’ve ever read (easy to believe).
In the end, though, it wasn’t Shane Stevens or even Thomas Harris who initiated the golden age of the serial-killer thriller. I believe that honor belongs to a couple of men named Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry and a nonfiction book they collaborated on called Helter Skelter. The book, which recounts the Manson Family’s murders, the investigation into those murders, and the arrest and prosecution of the culprits, was published forty-five years ago, in 1974, and to this day it remains the best-selling true crime book of all time, outselling such masterpieces as In Cold Blood, The Onion Field, The Executioner’s Song, and Devil in the White City. The book won an Edgar Award in 1975. It has inspired several TV films. It has been updated and reprinted in a variety of new editions. Bugliosi was the prosecutor at Charles Manson’s trial and had access to all variety of materials that aren’t available to the average true-crime book writer. Bugliosi and Gentry, though not in the same league as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, were nonetheless talented writers who knew how to tell a true story well. Helter Skelter had a galvanizing effect on writers of gritty crime fictions. No longer would it be enough for crime writers to employ nothing but their imaginations in the creation of gripping crime novels. Since the publication of Helter Skelter it has become commonplace for crime writers to join police officers in ride-alongs, to do research into forensics and DNA sequencing and blood-splatter patterns. Look at the acknowledgements of a gritty crime novel these days and you are likely to find the author thanking any number of law-enforcement experts. Bugliosi and Gentry made that happen. It’s probably no coincidence that my paperback edition of BROI carries a blurb from Curt Gentry on the back cover (“This is Shane Stevens’ masterpiece . . . the most suspenseful novel in years.”). Whether they acknowledged it or not, most of the authors writing serial-killer thrillers in the late 1970s and early 80s were in competition with Bugliosi and Gentry. They were trying to write fiction that was as gripping and authentic-seeming as Helter Skelter. They were unconsciously seeking the approval of Bugliosi and Gentry. And Stevens, at least, got it.
That the serial-killer novel trend was in full flower well before The Red Dragon came along is acknowledged in the opening line of Kirkus Reviews’ assessment of that novel:
It seems as if two out of every three suspense novels in recent years have featured psychopathic mass murderers—but Harris’ contribution to the genre stands well above the pulpy crowd.
The Manson Family’s Tate-LaBianca murders occurred on August 9, 1969 and you will probably be reading and hearing a lot about them this summer, as the fiftieth anniversary of the event approaches. One of this summer’s biggest box-office attractions is expected to be Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Scheduled for release in July, it’s a film in which Charles Manson and the Tate-LaBianca murders figure prominently in the plot (Margot Robbie plays murdered actress Sharon Tate).
In 1973, a year before Helter Skelter was published, best-selling crime writer Lawrence Sanders published The First Deadly Sin, a serial-killer novel that sold well (a selection of the Book of the Month Club, and a first printing of 100,000 hardback copies) and was made into a film starring Frank Sinatra and Faye Dunaway (curiously, Sharon Tate’s widower Roman Polanski was scheduled to direct the film before he opted to flee the country to avoid a jail sentence for raping a minor). I remember reading my mother’s copy at the time (I was fifteen years old) and thinking it was brilliant. But re-reading it recently was a disappointing experience. The book still has its virtues, but it’s a crime fiction that appears to have been inspired mostly by Hollywood crime films. It worked well for its time, but after Helter Skelter came out, readers began expecting more gritty realism for their serial-killer dollar. Indeed, the above-mentioned Kirkus review of The Red Dragon singles out Sanders’s bestseller as the kind of pre-Helter Skelter psycho-killer novel that just wouldn’t work any more:
Unlike Lawrence Sanders et al., Harris (Black Sunday) isn’t in the vulgar titillation business; his territory is evil, not just violence . . .
Bugliosi and Gentry taught America that some crimes are committed not in the heat of passion or for monetary gain but simply out of pure unadulterated evil. What made these crimes interesting wasn’t the motivations so much as the forensic work and psychological profiling necessary to solve them. Judging from the publication date of his book, I’d say the Shane Stevens must have begun work on BROI sometime around the publication of Helter Skelter. I don’t think a book as big and complex as his could have been written and brought into print in any less than three or four years. I have no proof that Stevens read or was influenced by Helter Skelter, but judging by BROI’s ambitious scope and the fact that Stevens (or someone acting in his behalf) must have sought out a blurb from Curty Gentry, I feel confident that he was trying to do in fiction what Gentry and Bugliosi had done in the realm of true crime. He came awful damn close to being the guy who wrote a fictional serial-killer novel that was every bit as gripping and terrifying and authentic-seeming as Helter Skelter. In the end, though, it was Thomas Harris who achieved that honor. But if you’re at all interested in the popular fiction of the 1970s (and I’m a fiend for it), serial-killer novels, or just compelling crime fiction in general, you ought to seek out a copy of By Reason of Insanity. For all its messiness and inconsistency (in fact, maybe even because of these things), it’s still a fascinating read.