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'True Crime' Writer Hot on Trial of a Family Plot : Homicide: Best-selling author Ann Rule witnesses Santa Ana proceedings for a book on a sensational father-daughter murder case.

June 03, 1990|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The case has exceeded expectations, she says, unveiling dramatic twists along the way. These range from the sensational--revelations that Brown had conspired to assassinate three members of his prosecution from his jailhouse cell--to the subtle--the tearful disclosure in court last week by a burly jailhouse informant that he is suffering from AIDS.

Rule speaks calmly about such things as murder and rape, betraying her mere year and a half as a police officer in Washington before bad eyes forced her retirement.

Early in her writing career, Rule says, she was bothered by the idea that "I'm making a living off of other people's tragedies." The guilt was so nagging that she once went to a psychiatrist to discuss it.

Now, however, she realizes that "what matters is how you treat your subjects, whether you're doing it to be sensational or with some sensitivity. . . . It's the gentlest people who are fascinated by the cruelest people, 'cause we don't understand why--how could they do that?"

Still, the proliferation of "true crime" stories in recent years has spurred a public relations backlash against the genre, prompting charges of callous exploitation and sloppy reporting over the publishing industry's rush to satiate the public's appetite for horror.

Rule has gotten mixed reviews.

In a 1987 New York Times review of "Small Sacrifices," for instance, author Ann Jones criticized what she said was an oversimplified idea of good versus evil and called the book "a page-turner, despite some shopworn characters and weary prose borrowed from cop fiction."

Rule is nonchalant about such broadsides.

"For writers," she said, "financial success is critical acceptance."

By that standard, she is a success. She has earned more than $2 million for "Stranger Beside Me" and "Small Sacrifices," along with sales on five other books that were impressive enough to prompt publishing giant Simon and Schuster to woo her away from her former publisher with a fat contract.

"Judging by the marketplace and what her books are worth to her publisher, she's absolutely at the top of the heap" for crime books, said Starling Lawrence, executive editor at W. W. Norton publishing house in New York and the editor of two of Rule's early works.

"She has this great understanding on a gut level of the subjects that she's writing about and how ordinary people respond to situations of terror or violence," he said. "And those were things that she taught herself before Ted Bundy ever came along."

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