The Road Out of Hell by Anthony Flacco

If we are to understand “evil” at all, we must think of it as a word—an emotional word—we use to describe actions performed by other humans that we experience as breathtakingly horrible, shocking, and, often enough, nauseating.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from June 18, 2020 to June 20, 2020.

I’m an avid follower of a book site called Book Riot. They publish frequent articles on anything book related. I stumbled across a headline that instantly made me want to read it, called “The Most Disturbing Book I Have Ever Read“. I love disturbing books so I wanted to see if it was a book that I hadn’t read it and sure enough it was. The Road Out of Hell was this particular contributor’s vote for most disturbing read. I had vaguely heard about the Wineville murders, probably on some true crime documentary that I watched. The author of this article sold me and I instantly went and put the book on hold at my library.

In the mid-1920s, Sanford Clark was 13 years old when his peculiar uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott, convinced his deranged and abusive mother that it was a good idea for him to leave his home in Saskatchewan, Canada and go and work with him on a “chicken farm” in Los Angeles in the US. The minute Sanford left the home his mother practically forgot him and his uncle began to show his true colours and intentions. For the next two years Sanford suffered unimaginable sexual abuse and trauma at the hands of his uncle. It became clear to Sanford that the chicken farm was a ruse for his uncle to carry out despicable acts on young boys like himself and get away with it. Gordon Stewart Northcott kidnapped, raped and killed an estimated 20 boys, though he was only convicted for a handful. Sanford was mortifyingly forced to help with some of the acts by providing his uncle’s victims with meager food and water, locking them away from visitors or helping dispose of their bodies. Sanford realised he would only live as long as he proved useful and endured the screams he heard night after night and felt immense guilt and relief when the abuse wasn’t being centered at him. After so much abuse, trauma, and manipulation, Sanford eventaully resigned himself to his fate believing his he was trapped and could not be saved. He was was looking forward to when his uncle would finally kill him… Thankfully his sister Jesse never ever gave up on him.

Gordon Steward Northcott finally got caught for his crimes when he made the mistake of killing a young white boy named Walter Collins of whom he had an acquaintance with. Up until then, Gordon had been praying on migrant Mexican boys whom unfortunately the authorities would not have looked to deeply into when they went missing or were never reported to begin with. The movie The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie is about the murder of Walter Collin’s as Angelina Jolie’s character plays Christina Collins, Walter’s mom, as she searches for her missing son. Gordon’s family knew about what he did and covered for him, with his mother actually assisting in one of his heinous murders. Gordon and his family attempted to escape but were eventually caught in September of 1928. Sanford bravely testified against Gordon in court and helped sentence Gordon to death by hanging in October 1930. The media attention and the gravity of these horrific crimes caused the town of Wineville to change its name to Mira Loma.

This story isn’t about Gordon though, this story is about Sanford and how he managed to beat all the odds of the trauma he experienced. After being rescued from the chicken farm after Gordon and his family fled, Sanford was lucky to have a people on the police force looking out for him. Sanford was put into a rehabilative youth program for his parts in assisting in some of Gordon’s crimes, despite him being a victim himself, but the program proved to be extremely useful in keeping Sanford busy and helping him heal from the ordeal. He made a promise to the investigator that he wouldn’t become a criminal statistic of those who have had to endure major trauma like he did. Sanford set out to lead a normal and productful life and he succeeded. Marrying the woman of his dreams and have the continued support from her and his sister Jesse through his darkest days, Jesse became a humble, hardworking, and kind person who raised two sons. He even served in WWII. Sanford passed away at the age of 78 in 1991 having fullfilled the promise to the policeman who showed him kindness and believed in him. The promise that kept him going during his darkest days.

This story is one of struggle and triumph. The novel puts the focus on Sanford and not on Gordon, as it should. The abhorring scenes that Sanford endured are tastefully described by the author in shocking detail that really makes you feel like you are in Sanford’s shoes. The author masterfully put Sanford’s life together from his teens to the end of his life. The content in this book is so chilling it’s hard to believe that it really happened as it’s a surreal read that is as engaging as a piece of horror fiction. I could not put this book down.

This novel is, by far, the best true crime novel I’ve read to date and I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves the genre. However, if you’re sensitive to scenes of rape and trauma, this book may not be for you. While the ultimate outcome of this book is positive, trauma is still takes a up a large part of this story.

 

 

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 328 pages.
Read from May 17th, 2018 to May 28th, 2018.

Why don’t I read more true crime novels? It is a question that I never thought to ask myself until now and even I don’t really have the answer to. I adore watching crime documentaries and programs so why not books? Michelle actually said it best:

“I love reading true crime, but I’ve always been aware of the fact that, as a reader, I am actively choosing to be a consumer of someone else’s tragedy. So like any responsible consumer, I try to be careful in the choices I make. I read only the best: writers who are dogged, insightful, and humane.”

This book became an overnight sensation as the author, Michelle NcNamara, passed away before completing it. In life, Michelle was married to Patton Oswalt, a famous comedian. Michelle’s abrupt and unexpected death hit Patton very hard. He decided to finish his wife’s obsession and life’s work with the help of a few others with the remaining data that Michelle had left.

If you had not heard of the Golden State Killer before the publication of this book, I am sure that you have now as this book has brought to light a cold case that has (had) evaded authorities for decades. The Golden State Killer paralyzed Northern Californa in the 70s and 80s by committing a suspected 50 rapes. He had a routine of breaking into peoples homes where they are supposed to feel safe and was not deterred if the woman’s partner was present, in fact, that seemed to become his preference later on. The Golden State Killer got his nickname, coined by the author later on, when he took his crimes to the southern part of the state and committed 12 spine-chilling rapes and murders.

Michelle became obsessed with tracking down the Golden State Killer. She interviewed and befriended detectives that had worked the case previously and scrupulously reviewed all previous evidence with the use of modern technology and the wonders of the internet.

“That summer I hunted the serial killer at night from my daughter’s playroom. For the most part I mimicked the bedtime routine of a normal person. Teeth brushed. Pajamas on. But after my husband and daughter fell asleep, I’d retreat to my makeshift workspace and boot up my laptop, that fifteen-inch-wide hatch of endless possibilities…”

This book, at least the sections that were written by Michelle herself, are about her journey and obsession to track down this horrible murderer and rapist. Michelle’s intrigue into crime came from an incident that happened in her own hometown and from there Michelle fell in love with true crime. Michelle talks about how strange it is to be obsessed with something so morbid and to try and escape the fear and hate that it creates when dealing with such horrific acts caused by a man.

“I love my husband. I hate men.”

The sections of the book that Michelle wrote are intimate, gripping and full of the talent and passion that she truly possessed. Had she been able to complete this book on her own I have no doubt that its literary merit along with its exquisitely detailed research would have landed Michelle an award. However, because she passed before finishing this book the story feels unfinished and disjointed. Incomplete. But perhaps it is best left that way.

Michelle’s efforts with this book helped bring new light to the Golden State Killer case and shortly after the book was published, Joeseph DeAngelo was arrested for the crimes.

“The Daily Beast was the first to report that DeAngelo was the suspect arrested after an interview with journalist Billy Jensen, who worked with researchers on a book about the crimes, I’ll Be Gone in the DarkThe book was written by Michelle McNamara, who died before it was published. It was finished by Jensen, researcher Paul Haynes, and McNamara’s husband, the comedian and actor Patton Oswalt.” – The Daily Beast – April 25, 2017

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Joeseph DeAngelo in court in Sacramento. Image credit The LA Times: https://lat.ms/2tvWy5I.

Michelle was using online ancestry websites to help try and find a DNA match. The police authorities were also using this method but not in the way you might think. They were using the websites the same way you or I would use them as they did not additional or special access to the databases. Companies who own these ancestry-type websites claim privacy laws won’t allow police to access their data for investigative purposes. Police authorities were able to connect Joseph DeAngelo to the case through the DNA of a relative on one of these ancestry websites.  Begging the question, should police have access to these types of DNA and ancestry websites for active investigations?

While I am disappointed with how unfinished this novel feels I am still glad to have read it as I am sure it will go down in true crime history. For those that are considering reading it, approach the book with the understanding that this is not the perfect novel that Michelle would have envisioned but appreciate the pieces of her that she left within in the novel and her admirable efforts to help track down and imprison this abominable killer.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

“I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat.”

3/5 stars.
Hardcover 343 pages.
Read from June 6, 2017 to June 13, 2017.

Said to be the first of its kind, In Cold Blood, was ground-breaking back when it was first published back in 1965 and was once considered the original non-fiction novel and a pioneer of the true-crime genre.

The novel takes place in Holcomb, Kansas and follows Herb Clutter, a well respected and self-made man, and his family. On November 15, 1959, Herb, his wife Bonnie, and two of their children: Nancy and Kenyon were murdered. Each of them tied up before being individually executed with a shotgun. The police were at a loss as to who would have had a motive to kill such a well-to-do family. As the story unfolds, Capote describes the two fugitives in detail and just how the police were finally able to bring them to justice.

Dick Hickock, a young man with a normal upbringing was sadly disfigured in a car accident in 1950 and as a result of his head injuries he was never quite the same. He married and left numerous wives and children behind and quickly turned to petty crime after his family could not afford to send him to college. It was apparently Dick’s idea to rob the Clutter’s as he was tipped off by a convict that use to work for the Clutter’s claiming that the family kept a safe full of cash.

Perry Smith was a different sort of character. Perry suffered a horrific upbringing of physical and emotional abuse. His father was abusive and his mother was a drunk. After their mother left their father and then passed away from choking on her own vomit, Perry and siblings ended up in an numerous orphanages were they were further abused by caretakers. Two of Perry’s siblings committed suicide as adults. Perry served in the Korean war where injuries to his legs left him in constant pain which he often treated with copious amounts of aspirin. While it may have been Dick’s idea, it was Perry who carried through with the killings of the Clutter family.  With that, Perry’s character is still by far more sympathetic, as he comes across more honest and has even said that he stopped Dick from raping 16 year old Nancy before she was killed. Capote became close friends with Perry during the time that Capote spent interviewing him for the book and it has long be rumoured if there was anything more to the relationship.

“There’s got to be something wrong with us. To do what we did.”

While this book was generally well received a the time, there were some questions as to how concise certain characters and events were depicted. Capote’s long time friend and author, Harper Lee, was his research assistant for this book and contributed more than 150 pages of notes. While Lee was placed in the acknowledgements section of the book she was not credited for her research which, apparently left her with hurt feelings. While the two remained friends after the book’s publication, they grew apart.

Lee and Capote, 1966

Learning about the men who committed such an atrocious act was really intriguing. No wonder people were blown away by its content at the time. However, reading this book in the present day does not have the same effect, making it was easier to criticize Capote’s writing style. I found the novel to be dry and was curious as to how Capote could so easily say that everything her wrote was the absolute truth. The book reads very much like a story and so it is easy to forget that these atrocious murders actually took place and that you’re not just reading another mystery novel. Considering the writing style, it is also hilarious to me that anyone could have ever though that Capote helped Harper Lee write To Kill A Mockingbird, a long held belief that was debunked in one of Capote’s letters to his aunt.

Overall, the novel was decent for its psychological qualities depictions of the murderers but without the shock value of the content, it does not hold up to today’s standards. However, it is still an iconic book, and worth reading if you are true-crime fan or even a Harper Lee fan considering the long history of her friendship with Capote.


References:

http://time.com/4230925/harper-lee-truman-capote-friendship/

http://www.al.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2016/02/did_harper_lee_help_truman_cap.html

https://www.monroecountymuseum.org/#!myth-buster/ccb7

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Cold_Blood