Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter

Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry (1974)


This was my second time reading Helter Skelter. My first time was many (many) years ago when I was twelve. It was this book that made me fascinated with serial killers and true crime non-fiction. This time around was just as fascinating and piqued my curiosity about the Manson family all over again. And I’m not the only one. Helter Skelter has been a best seller since it was released in 1974, and sparked movies, TV shows, and inspired many more works of fiction.

Written by Vincent Bugliosi, the Deputy DA who served as the main prosecutor on the trial against Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten. This book is both an account on that trial as well as Manson’s life and (other) crimes. It tells of the beginning of the Manson family cult and how one man with mental problems, paranoia, distrust of the government and an ego for miles became the driving force behind at least seven and as many as forty brutal murders.

Well written and authoritative, Mr. Bugliosi certainly had an insider’s view of the case and the information presented comes out believable and easy to follow. With a cast of so many characters, it would be easy to lose track of who committed what crime but Mr. Bugliosi manages to give each main player their own identity, personality, and role in the story.

Helter Skelter stands out as THE book on the Manson trial. I searched Charles Manson on Amazon books and there were 786 results. Guess what book was listed first? Then I googled the words Helter Skelter (which we learn was Manson’s “rally cry” which he took from The Beatle’s White Album and understood to mean Armageddon—a race war between the blacks and the whites) Now, The Beatles were a fairly popular band, so one might assume they would rank highly on the Google search. Their Wikipedia page came in second to the Wiki on Bugliosi’s book.

Almost everyone involved in this case wrote a book, and there are just as many versions of what happened, who did what, and who was ultimately to blame. And yet, Helter Skelter remains the go-to for the most accurate story of the Tate/LaBianca murders. Much of the book’s text is taken directly from court transcripts and other legal documents. Now, you could go dig up the 209 volumes of transcripts from the trial itself (made up of 31,716 pages) and read it yourself, but I’ll believe that Bugliosi’s version is a good summary.

I’m not saying that he didn’t paint himself as a bit of a hero in the book. And I do understand the idea of cherry picking the parts of the transcripts that best fit the story he was trying to sell. That may be and I’m sure he pissed off some people in the LAPD and LASO, as well as defense attorneys, judges, media and many, many followers of Manson. Which is not the safest thing to do from what I understand—see Ronald Hughs. But the book has stood the test of time and has continued to sell. It often serves as a reference in other Manson documentaries and Non-fiction. That has to say something.

There are a lot of non-fiction/true-crime books out there and there are many ways to present true crime. A more recent and popular format has been the creative non-fiction genre where you’ll find books like The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter reads less creative and more like an episode of Dateline or Forensic Files. It’s a hefty book coming in at close to 700 pages, but it’s all substance and little fluff. Yet, due to the nature of the crime and the psychology of those involved (including the defense attorneys and judges), you can’t put it down.

Bugliosi has since written several other non-fiction books on OJ Simpson, Bill Clinton (vs. Paula Jones), George W. Bush (vs. Al Gore and one blaming Bush for the deaths of 4,000 soldiers in Iraq), JFK and RFK as well as others on various subjects. As a prosecutor, he has won 105 out of 106 felony trials. He is obviously a competent speaker as well as a writer. To win over a jury, you need to be able to lay the facts out in a concise, organized and easy to understand format and you have to do it charismatically. You can’t talk down to them. Isn’t it the same with readers?

I haven’t read any other books by Bugliosi, and I will grant it that Charles Manson, his families and the Tate/LaBianca murders are fascinating in their pathology, but in the hands of a lesser writer, this book would be buried in the middle of those 786 other versions available on Amazon. Instead it leads the pack and will forever link a Beatle’s song to the senseless, bloody murders of seven innocent human beings.


5 thoughts on “Helter Skelter

  1. Tamar says:

    I’m so glad that your review centers around the author, Vincent Bugliosi. I actually hadn’t known a lot of what you said about the author, the amount of cases that he had won or the other books he had written concerning other popular trials. I’m glad that your review centered on that mostly.


  2. Helter Skelter does read like a transcript of Forensic Files. It’s very to the point with no creative flair or dramatic retellings. Yet it is still compelling enough to make the 700 pages easy enough to get through.
    Bugliosi definitely doesn’t do the police force any favors in his telling. They mostly come off like a bunch of idiots who didn’t know how to process a crime scene or investigate a murder.


  3. vanessaessler says:

    With all the other books written on the Mason murders/Family, I think it’s Bugliosi’s expertise with presenting facts in an engaging manner that makes this the book leader of the pack. Unlike what I would expect of something written by say, one of the family members, I feel confident that Bugliosi knows what he is talking about, even if there is a bit of bias. I’m not generally a fan of non-fiction like this, but this book didn’t try to polish and fictionalize real events like many others. It let the reader draw their own conclusion from fact rather than creating it for them with embellishments.


  4. Yeah, I think this is definitely the book you want to read if you want to get your feet wet learning about Manson. I’m sure the other ones help round out the character a bit, as well as muddy the fact to fit the writer’s agenda. Do we get a complete picture of Manson with this book? I’d say not even close. But it’s a good start.

    I especially liked the way Bugliosi began to express a certain level of respect for Manson during and after the trial. I wonder if that was so he wouldn’t get Ronald Hughesed (that’s a verb, right?)


  5. Yes, you’re right, Helter Skelter is like one of those gigantic “overview” texts they assign you in, for instance, Biology 101. It’s comprehensive, and you have to start there before you should even think about reading anything else.
    I’ve read Larson’s Devil in the White City, and while his approach is more literary/fictionalized, there’s something to be said for Bugliosi’s method of letting the facts (at least the ones we’re told about) speak for themselves.


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