Years ago, I was living in a house with a bunch of other students. It was then that I read Helter Skelter, the book by Vincent Bugliosi about the Manson murders. Bugliosi was, of course, the prosecutor on that famous case.
I am the type of person who is much more scared by books and movies about things that could or did happen than things that could not. I watched countless horror movies (the classics of the 40’s and 50’s) as a kid without being scared (Saturday night with my older brother, all lights off for the Christopher Coffin show), but I was terrified at the same age by The Three Faces of Eve. After I read Helter Skelter, I realized for the first time that because my bedroom was the former living room of the old farmhouse and right next to the door, it would be the first stop for anyone who broke in during the night. I was creeped out!
This newer Bugliosi book is about a crime that occurred in the 1970’s but was not tried until the 1990’s. It involves two couples who arrived coincidentally at what was supposed to be a deserted island far south of Hawaii, Palmyra.
One couple, the Grahams, was wealthy, with a beautiful boat, fully stocked. Their plan was to stay on the island a year, although Muff Graham was there only because Mac wanted to be. Buck Walker was a fugitive from a drug-selling charge. He and his girlfriend Jennifer Jenkins arrived on a leaky, battered old boat with few stores, planning to stay there indefinitely.
In late August of 1974, after staying on the island a couple of months, Buck and Jennifer were preparing their boat for a tough sail to Fanning Island to buy more supplies. They were tired of living mostly on fish and coconuts. A couple months later, the couple sailed into Ala Wai harbor in Hawaii in a beautiful boat, clearly the one that belonged to the Grahams.
Although Walker and Jenkins were prosecuted for the theft of the boat, visits to Palmyra turned up no evidence of what happened to the Grahams. Jenkins’ story was that they found the Grahams’ overturned Zodiac on the beach after Mac and Muff told Buck they were going fishing. Walker and Jenkins claimed to have searched for the couple, but said they could find no sign of them and thought they drowned or were killed by sharks. Nevertheless, they had not reported the incident to the authorities because they had stolen the Grahams’ boat.
Seven years later, a visitor to Palmyra discovered a human skull, a wrist watch, and other bones on the beach. They appeared to have fallen out of a metal box that had been fastened shut with wires and had drifted ashore. The skull was identified as that of Muff Graham.
Buck Walker was convicted of the murder. Bugliosi’s book is about Jennifer’s trial.
First, I was surprised to find Bugliosi had changed from prosecution and defended Jenkins. He makes a major point that he only defends people he thinks are innocent of the crime they’re charged with. I was not as sure as he was about Jennifer.
This book is well written and for the most part moves along nicely. It has a few flaws, though.
For one thing, it is extremely long at more than 700 pages. In my opinion, it does not need to be that lengthy. The crime itself occupies less than 200 pages. The rest is about the investigation and the trial. Although most of the material is interesting, at times it seems as though Bugliosi is confusing his role of storyteller with that of a litigation instructor. He spends a lot of time explaining legal procedure and concepts, some of which are very basic. For example, within the same 20 or so pages, he spends four pages explaining the difference between the verdict of not guilty and actual innocence and another four pages on the importance of the summation. He also constantly gives his opinion of the job the prosecution was doing. I sensed a lot of ego here.
Approaching the end of the book, I was astonished to find nearly 100 pages devoted to Bugliosi’s summation, which is quoted almost verbatim. Although he makes some important points not raised elsewhere, he covers a lot of ground already discussed during the trial. He could have hit the highlights.
A lot of dialogue is quoted throughout the book. Although this technique makes the book move along, it seems impossible to me that so much conversation could be accurately recounted almost 20 years (by the time of the trial) after some of the events. This approach to nonfiction makes me uncomfortable.
If you like true crime, you’ll probably find this book interesting enough to stick with it. Like me, you may find yourself skipping over pages of material. While I was reading, I often imagined Henderson, Bugliosi’s ghostwriter, arguing with him that some things should be left out.