May 20, 2024

What Makes Ann Rule’s Books
So Compelling?

Ann Rule had a gift for tapping into our collective obsession with crime.

In her own life, Rule was able to combine a unique set of influences that made her preternaturally well-suited to the pursuit of crime writing. She was the granddaughter of a sheriff and spent many summers keeping killers company in his jailhouse, bringing them their meals. At college, she studied creative writing and minored in abnormal psychology, and her first job out of college was police officer for the Seattle police department. When she finally made the decision to make a living as a crime writer, she had all the tools at hand to excel. She took a vocational stance to writing that combined her professional experiences in policing and psychology with her writing talents. As a jobbing journalist, she developed a no-nonsense, journalistic style that laid bare the technical, mechanical aspects of a case. As she matured into writing books, her style became adorned with the cinematic feel she is now admired for.

But it was her personal attributes which elevated her work above the rest. Her natural capacity for empathy meant that in a field that so easily slides into salaciousness, Rule maintained a focus on the victims’ lives, rather than ingratiating the killer’s fantasies. The result is a collection of true crime books that are decidedly ahead of their time, seeking to give victims agency and reduce the killers to mere aberrations—fascinating, but by no means the protagonists of these books. The minds of these killers are artifacts that Rule invites us to analyze, but never inhabit.

Rule wanted her books to act as cautionary tales, so that the deaths of the women within them would not be for nothing. In this quest she was successful, receiving multiple letters from women who avoided death after learning about the tell-tale signs of would-be murderers in her books.

Rule’s popularity often drew her closer to her subjects than she might have liked. With horror, she recollected that the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, appeared at her own book signings. As such, Rule sometimes becomes a character in her own books, assisting with the investigation as she wrote it.

Rule’s books have an important element that is missing from some popular true crime stories – something truly essential: answers. Rule almost only wrote about cases that reached conviction, and in most cases wouldn’t even start writing until someone had been arrested. As such, each book has a satisfying structure.

Ann Rule’s books are gripping, pacy, detailed and didactic. Her transparent, journalistic style tackles uneasy subjects — fearlessly holding some of the darkest individuals in society under a microscope, while immortalizing their victims. Those victims are fully-fledged characters, not artifacts or mere canvasses for violence, and the result is a rich tapestry of stories that are personal, detailed and expressive. Rule’s decision to always see a case through to its end (even if it takes decades) means that there is a kind of catharsis in the brutality. In Rule’s world, every victim has their day in court, and every killer is brought to justice—one way or another.

The culmination of Rule’s tireless devotion to relating these harrowing cautionary tales is an oeuvre of work unrivalled in the true crime genre. Each and every one of Ann Rule’s true crime titles has featured on the New York Times Bestseller list. In 1989, Ann Rule appeared with Diane Downs (the killer she covered in Small Sacrifices) on Oprah and was one of the most-watched episodes of Oprah of all time. Today there are fifty million Ann Rule books in print in sixteen different languages, and in 2019, Time magazine ranked The Stranger Beside Me on their list of ‘16 Best True Crime Books of All Time’.

Undoubtedly, Ann Rule’s charm, compassion and style have not only procured an enviable catalogue of essential true crime, but her most fitting title: The Queen of True Crime.