June 12, 2024

How Ann Rule Mastered
Empathy in True Crime

Ann Rule’s distinctive style of non-fiction was a seamless blend of suspense rooted in a psychological understanding of the killer, with a respect for the victims rooted in true sympathy for their families and loved ones. Rule balances the knife’s edge that these two elements form to create a reading experience that is as heartfelt as it is grisly, as gripping as it is sentimental.

“If there was one thing she understood well it was obsession. Not just with the details of a murder case either, though there was that. She understood that she lived in a society both terrified of and obsessed with killing.”

– Michelle Dean, The Guardian

Rule is no sensationalist. She looked down on the hastily written true crime books that sought to profit quickly off the back of a big case. She would study each case for many years and avoided writing stories where the perpetrator had not been caught and sentenced.

Although Rule is probably best known for books about the high-profile cases like Ted Bundy and the I-5 killer, she preferred to work on lesser-known crimes, usually with female victims—in particular, married women. She also sought out cases which featured a certain kind of killer: “I have to find the right subject … I’m always looking for somebody who is charismatic, intelligent, attractive, rich, successful, has love … the things that the rest of us think, if we had that, we’d be happy. But these people are insatiable … I go through 300 or 400 cases to find the right subject. Then, the book almost tells itself.”

“I can’t always distance myself. If I am not emotionally involved, I think my books would be less interesting.”

– Ann Rule

Rule’s killers are often millionaires or successful businessmen; outwardly happy husbands and fathers; or incredibly attractive ‘winners’ in life. But they all share something in common: a missing piece that means they kill despite their enviable lives—because no success or privilege can make up for their psychopathy.

Rule was also incredibly cognizant of the gender politics at play in the world of true crime and of crime more generally. She lionizes the female victims and characters that feature in her investigations. They are so much more than mere victims, mere bodies. They have hopes and dreams, motivations and flaws; full-fleshed characters whose fates become all the more tragic because Rule has taken such pains to introduce them to us. As one reviewer observes: “They are women who love to dance, they love to laugh, they love their children, their families and their dogs. They are women with sisters, mothers, and countless friends. Women who mattered to their community. Women who were simply looking to have a good life, but somewhere along the line, trusted the wrong man, and it cost them their life.”

Rule’s female victims in her books are treated with enough respect, imbued with enough agency, that they are able to live on as people, rather than victims.

Rule’s enviable attention to detail does not only extend to the characters in her book. One of her most under-appreciated qualities is her world building, a deeply wrought understanding of place and atmosphere that lends her books a cinematic feel. In The Stranger Beside Me, Rule describes the vegetation of Tallahassee with such incredible detail that one would be forgiven for thinking she was an expert horticulturalist, as well as a long-serving local of the area. She was neither— she was a writer with an appreciation for how that precise, photographic detail can turn reportage into something truly experiential for the reader.

Despite the respect with which Rule treats the victims in her books, she does not shy away from the grisly elements of her job. When describing the violence that is a feature of all such stories, Rule employs her vast experience as a crime reporter to deliver those scenes in a sparing, matter-of-fact way. The murders are what they are in these moments, and Rule is never salacious, preferring instead to examine the psychology of the killers in between their crimes, during imagined moments of reflection.

What all these elements amount to is the sense that Ann Rule is much more than just the original Queen of True Crime. She is the trusted custodian of womenkind’s most tragic stories. So much so that shortly before Sheila Blackthorne Bellush’s murder, she chillingly asked of her sister: “If anything happens to me… promise you’ll find Ann Rule and ask her to write my story”. The resulting book, Every Breath You Take, is perhaps the only true crime book written at the victim’s request.

“There’s only one writer who can do this story justice—and that’s Ann Rule”

— King County Sheriff David Reichert (the man who caught the Green River Killer)