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American Psycho

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If Charles Manson were paid a royalty every time someone wrote about him, he could open his own prison.

So many books, documentaries and articles have been churned out about the now-78-year-old American psycho in the 44 years since his crimes, they should give him his own archives. And despite the litany of other horrid felonies that have followed his, many of them more horrific, Manson remains the benchmark evil incarnate of so many people.

In fact, Charlie's curriculum vitae -- pimp, thief, con man, sexual predator, multiple killer -- will easily get him a security job in hell one day alongside the likes of fellow killers Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and B.C.'s Robert Picton. After all, who better to police the place?

This latest take on Charlie the miscreant, by former Texas investigative reporter Jeff Guinn, is a well-written, riveting story for novitiates, and well worth the effort.

However, for an ardent Manson scholar it doesn't contain that much in the way of new, critical information (although it does promise some heretofore unpublished photos).

Unfortunately, because of Charlie's overwhelming exposure, this latest chronicle has about as much chance of satisfying Manson devotees as watching hockey in total darkness.

Manson is Guinn's 15th book. His credits include Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde and The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the OK Corral.

In Manson, Guinn is particularly at home writing about what goes on in courtrooms. His explanations of the strategies of both prosecutorial and defence counsels and how they fare are readable and authoritative.

Likewise, his assessment of Manson as a troublesome, manipulative prisoner (no warden wants him). Then there's Charlie's chilling and ongoing guile and the attempts by some of the people he ruled to break free of his influence over them even when he's behind bars.

And the fact the first massacre he ordered, on Aug. 9, 1969, was the right address but the wrong people, like Keystone Cops without the laughs. And to add pathos, one of his victims was pregnant, beautiful actress Sharon Tate (her husband the famous director Roman Polanski, was in Europe at the time). And then there's the ancillary drama of one of Charlie's so-called cult family, Squeaky Fromme, attempting later to assassinate U.S. President Gerald Ford.

It makes one think that Manson would do better to put down his guitar and become an editor for Stephen King.

As Guinn finds, serial killers are like fads: they come and go. And Charlie, as mass killers go, is an also-ran. In the 1980s and '90s the American Gary Ridgway, nicknamed the Green River Killer, killed 71. Manson orchestrated the killing of six, maybe seven.

So why does Manson seem to be eternal? Because this scruffy, scrawny street preacher and failed wannabe songwriter and performer was able to order a harem of pretty young women to butcher people on his command (he never did the killing himself) and woo them and others to satisfy his every need with zealous subservience.

All this and more he accomplished in a '60s California subculture of LSD, addled philosophy, pseudo-religion and a supermarket of sex at the zenith of hedonism.

Our most notable recent Canadian murderers, Paul Bernardo, Col. Russell Williams and the thankfully dead Clifford Olsen, never did anything as Hollywood, as theatrical, as that. Which explains Charles Manson's longevity as our continent's best-known sociopath.

Meanwhile, the bible on Manson remains 1974's bestseller Helter Skelter by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. The title is a song by Paul McCartney.

In Manson's unglued mind "helter skelter" was code for a coming race war in the U.S. (Charlie would have made a crummy cipher clerk.)

Again, Manson is a good read for first-timers. Because it's amazing what people do to each other.

Barry Craig is a retired journalist living in Winnipeg. He once interviewed one of Manson's prison-mates, the notorious 1930s bank robber and killer Alvin "Creepy" Karpis of the infamous Ma Barker Gang. Karpis helped Charlie learn to play the guitar. He described the Manson he knew in prison as "ordinary."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 A1


Updated on Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 6:30 PM CDT: Fixes formatting.

August 8, 2013 at 3:13 PM: Fixes typo in headline.

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