Ann Rule: Revealing the Strangers Beside Us
Many of Rule's books are collections of cases rather than a lengthy account of a single case, and every day she gets at least a dozen new ideas from her readers.
"All of my books now come from readers' ideas," she admits. "I pay attention to them, and my regular, loyal cadre of readers knows the kind of story I'm looking for. Some people do send inappropriate ideas, where it's a slam-dunk and there's no mystery, or where it's so grisly I don't want to spend a year of my life thinking about it."
She tends to stay away from those crimes that involve truly gory deeds, such as dismemberment, torture and beheading. Given how deeply she immerses in each case, and for how long she must do it to write a book, she tries to choose cases that won't adversely affect her. On her web site, she says, "I am drawn to cases where the suspect is not the classic murderer... If a person has all those things that most of us long for — physical beauty, wealth, charm, intelligence, talent, love — and still wants more and more, he or she may be an antisocial personality... Those people, who often wear a perfect mask make the best book subjects for me."
Some crime writers hire researchers to check out the story locales, interview people, and do the grunt work, but Rule does all of this herself. "If I don't see it and experience it and go to the places where it happened, how can I write about it? Some writers hate to go to trials, but I love trials. For a while, people couldn't understand why I'd find them so fascinating, but I'd rather go to a trial than to a Broadway play. Now that we have Court TV, they see what I mean. For my purposes, I get to see all of the characters, I get to hear them, and I get to judge for myself if I think their affect is honest or dishonest. The whole story is played out in open court as public record, and that's legally comforting to authors."
No matter what subject she tackles, she tries to explore in detail three angles of crime: the offender (or offenders), the victim(s), and the people in law enforcement who investigated, prosecuted, or defended the offender. As much as she can, she adds the scientific analysis of evidence, and because readers are often curious about what has happened to some of the people in her books since publication, she offers regular updates in her annual newsletter and on her Web site. "I try to keep in touch with prior cases," she explains, "and every once in a while I'll get new information, so I pass that on."
Her updates often come from family members with whom she has remained in touch, because she tends to stay friends with them.
"I get more involved with the families of the victims than other writers. These people become friends while I'm writing and they stay friends. When I first began this work, I realized that someone had to die for me to make a living. I went to a psychiatrist and told him I really needed the job to support my children, but I wasn't sure that I could do it. He told me that half of the world makes a living off the other half's misfortunes, and what matters is how you feel about those people. Then it was okay for me, because I knew that I really did care about them. From the beginning I've worked with families and friends of victims of violent crimes." Around her home near Washington's Puget Sound, she is active in support groups for abused women and children, and for families who have experienced violence.
Yet she does receive the occasional accusatory letter. "Every once in a while, I'll get a letter from someone who asks me, 'How can you do what you do? Don't you feel guilty?' And that immediately hits my 'guilt' button. But I don't feel that way because, in the main, the families of the victims like the books and they say it helps them to get closure. They also have something to tell others to go read who ask about it. Having a book means they don't have to keep going over and over it."
To balance her world, she stays involved with her children's lives and surrounds herself with wind chimes, teddy bears, prisms, and her many cats and dogs. Among her favorite moments are responses from readers who have taken comfort from her books during serious illness or have learned something that may have saved their lives.
One reader even saw in Rule's diligence a way to get at the truth of a crime that she anticipated against herself. That's where Rule's most recent book, Every Breath You Take, originated. It features the story of Sheila Bellush, whose obsessive ex-husband had hired someone to kill her. In 1997, she was murdered in her kitchen in front of her quadruplet toddlers, who were left to wander through her blood.
"When the crime had happened," Rule recalls, "I'd read it on the wire service and I remember thinking, 'What on earth could have happened? That woman must have really irritated someone to be the victim of such a crime.' I thought about looking into it, but it was so far away. Then I got an email and some phone calls from her sister, who lived two miles from our family's ranch in Oregon. The victim had actually told her sister that should anything happen to her, she was to ask me to tell her story. That was very chilling, but it was a command performance. I couldn't say no to that. When I started looking into it, I didn't know that there was an Oregon connection, and then it turned out the killer was born in Oregon and he and Sheila had gotten married in a town where I had once lived. So it was closer to me than I'd thought. Once I got into it, it was such a challenge to find all of the family of both the killer and victim."
At work now on a multiple-book contract, Rule eventually intends to write one story for which she has been collecting material over the past 19 years: the tale of the Green River Killer. Long elusive to law enforcement and responsible for anywhere from 49 to over 100 murders and disappearances of Seattle area women, the offender may finally have been caught. On November 30, 2001, Gary Leon Ridgway, 52, was arrested. His DNA has been linked with three of the victims, and circumstantial evidence associates him with a fourth. While some investigators say that if he's good for one, he's good for them all, Rule will likely take a more careful approach. She's aware that some of the victims don't quite fit the pattern.
"I can't finish the Green River book for three years," she says. "I know most of the people on the task force and I know the prosecutors. They've told me it won't be ready any time soon, and I never write before there's a verdict because I don't want to mess up the case."
Given her popularity and long string of successful books, it's safe to say that Ann Rule will be producing quality true crime for many years to come.