Thursday, October 20, 2016

BOOKS: THE WANT-AD KILLER




Ann Rule gets my vote. A chronicler of America’s most despicable people, a lovable grandma figure who wrote about sickos and psychopaths, all for the enjoyment of readers who crave tales of murder and greed, she was the queen of the true crime genre. This is an interesting distinction since there’s no king. Jack Olsen was pound for pound a better writer than Ann Rule, and Harold Schechter a better historian, but good ol’ Ann, who died last year at 83, seems to rank above her male counterparts by simply reigning longer, and creating more widespread appeal. One of her earliest books, The Want-Ad Killer, is now available as an audio book from Tantor Audio; it still kicks up a storm of ill feelings. Ann Rule could look evil in the face, smell its breath, count the zits on its forehead, and come back home to write about it. 

Early in The Want-Ad Killer we meet Harvey Louis Carignan, a hulking psycho who has spent most of his life in Alcatraz and other comfy spots. Known as “Harvey The Hammer” for reasons I can’t share on such a genteel blog as this one, Carignan killed and raped several women. His stomping grounds spread from Alaska to Washington and Minnesota. Rule writes about him from a distance, like a big game expert studying a jungle  beast from afar, learning his habits, describing him as a “carefully programmed killing machine, but one who could mimic human responses cleverly.” Rule’s style was straightforward, bordering on the simplistic; perhaps her background as a police officer kept her from trying anything too ornate, as if fancy prose might give her subjects an unintended glamor. But now and then a mischievous humor comes out: when an intended victim avoids death because Carignan was momentarily confused at having yanked off her wig, Rule writes that she “escaped by a hair.” That’s funny to me, in an Alfred Hitchcock sort of way.

Along with The Lust Killer and The I-5 Killer, The Want-Ad Killer completes a sort of trilogy that Rule wrote in her early days as “Andy Stack,” a name she used while writing for True Detective. It’s a handle fairly dripping with ambulance chasing, missed deadlines, and sensationalism. I’ve always imagined Andy Stack as a short guy in a baggy suit, unmarried, a cheap tipper. Granted, “Stack” was merely a shortening of Rule’s maiden name – Stackhouse – but it’s still a name that conjures up lowlifes and their horrific crimes. Rule eventually became a different sort of writer, one who covered crimes committed by handsome, wealthy people, rather than lower-class brutes. Hence, aside from a few instances like her 2005 book about the Green River killer, she’d rarely write about obvious monsters like Carignan. Instead, Rule focused on prosperous people who were evil on the inside, the soccer moms and well-heeled lawyers who killed their secret lovers and smothered their kids with pillows. Though the quality of her later books was wildly uneven - I often thought her pace of two books per year was killing her as a writer – she’d staked out her territory and claimed it like a tyrant. Not surprisingly, the “Andy Stack” name was retired.

Still, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Andy Stack books. They were tighter, more visceral, meaner. I like how the detectives in The Want-Ad Killer are depicted merely as working men; they aren’t especially heroic, but they’re diligent. The court scenes don’t drag on, either, which should be noted by other true crime authors. The sympathy for the victims, a Rule trademark,  was already there in the Stack books, but wasn’t as all-consuming as it would be in her later books, which I believe she wrote with a female audience in mind. As Andy Stack, I think she wrote with a male audience in mind, serving up sex and violence, and base characters like the “oddly brilliant” Carignan, the “roving, prowling killer intent on gratifying his own murderous fantasies.” But Rule knew that “Andy Stack” was limited to an audience of people like me, and my stoop-shouldered, hairy-knuckled brethren, whereas “Ann Rule” and her tales of gated communities could appeal to a much larger readership. Ann Rule books could be found in supermarket racks next to the Danielle Steel novels. Andy Stack’s? Never. So be it. (The Stack name isn’t even mentioned in the marketing of the new audio version; I weep for an old friend’s demise.) 

In the 1990s, when the true crime genre boomed, and bookstores piled crime titles from the floor to the ceiling, Rule enjoyed an unprecedented heyday. She wrote bestsellers. Some were turned into movies. The Andy Stack books were eventually republished under Rule’s real name to cash in on her popularity, but her target readership preferred crimes committed by attractive, affluent people, not goons like Harvey Carignan. I guess this is a fairly human trait; there’s something tasty about learning that our good-looking, educated neighbors are, deep down, no better than Harvey the Hammer. We like to read about rich hypocrites and their punishments. But I think Rule needed characters like Harvey to get her engine running. The Beatles had the Star Club in Germany; Ann Rule had highway killers, women strangled in garages, fiends placing ads in newspapers looking for prey, men who mutilated corpses like they were killing time on a summer retreat,  men who, in short, took rejection as an excuse to bash a woman’s face in with a gardening tool. Rule may have gone the Aaron Spelling course of billionaires behaving badly, but her roots were in more feral places.

 

 

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