Queen of True Crime
Ann Rule left us yesterday.
The legendary chronicler of American crime passed away at 84 and we lost the very best. For those of us that make movies-for-television and mini-series, Ann was the True Crime Gold Standard. Everything else; everyone else would always be compared to her.
I was blessed to be able to make two movie adaptations of Ann's books. In 2008 and 2009 I Executive Produced TOO LATE TO SAY GOODBYE starring Rob Lowe andEVERYTHING SHE EVER WANTED starring Gina Gershon. Following those successes, I developed THE I-5 KILLER, which my friend Howard Braunstein ended up Executive Producing.
The Rob Lowe movie was shot first. Ann went through each page of the script with me over the phone. We couldn't get more than four lines in before she began regaling me with another story about victims or perpetrators. It was as if she was one part crime journalist, one part cop and one part TED Talk guest. Calls that should have lasted a half hour frequently went hours. And you couldn't move her along - her stories were so ridiculously captivating. She loved the families of the victims and seemed to have stayed in personal touch with nearly all of the ones she wrote about in her books (certainly in the ones we adapted). And she kept very close watch on the criminals her books chronicled. She was at the ready should a parole board or victim need her assistance in speaking to why one monster or another should remain behind bars.
From my conversation with Ann I knew I was in the presence of writing royalty. For every question I would pose to her about one of her books, there were two questions fired back. Always the inquisitor, always wanting more answers. She was a wonderful collaborator and was available at a moment's notice. We were setting up the opening shot for the Rob Lowe thriller, recreating the suicide death of Rob's character's wife. We weren't sure how the body was positioned on the bed. From a fancy house on the outskirts of Winnipeg on a blustery Saturday afternoon, I called Ann. Moments later she called me back and was giving me the tiniest of details of when the police were called to the scene and discovered the body. Ann gave our director, Norma Bailey, the exact information we needed - recalling specifics as if she was standing over the bloody corpse at that very moment.
Ann came by her crime savvy and detective work naturally. Ann's family had careers in law enforcement and she spoke often of times with her grandfather and uncle, who were both Sheriffs in Michigan. Ann entertained me with stories of summers working in the local jail in Michigan and how she worked for the Seattle Police Department when she first arrived in the Pacific Northwest, where she would eventually make her home.
When the Lowe movie, TOO LATE TO SAY GOODBYE was finished, we delivered the broadcast tape to Lifetime Movie Network and I called Ann at her home in Washington. She was giddy with excitement to see it - and asked that I overnight her a DVD. I offered to do one better - I would bring it up to her Washington. Now, according to her agent (the frightful and fastidious, Ron Bernstein - who was like a pit bull protecting Ann), Ann rarely allowed anyone to come visit her and she even more rarely left her house to go meet someone. I considered myself blessed. She was eager to see our film and I was just as excited to share it with her.
My early morning Alaska Airlines flight landed in the soft rain of Seattle around 9am. No sooner had my Kenneth Coles hit the sidewalk than I heard the honk of a horn. I looked up and there was an adorable older blonde woman just peaking over the dashboard waving for me to run into traffic and jump in her car. She drove a large American made car - maybe a Chevrolet. I tossed my backpack on the rear seat and jumped in on the passenger side. Whatever pre-conceived notions I had about the real life Jessica Fletcher quickly dissolved as I took in my hostess driving like Mario Andretti on a rain soaked Indianapolis 500 track. The seat and floor of the car were covered in newspapers - perhaps fodder for future books or just simpler to leave The Seattle Times on the floors. She smiled and we fell into a conversation instantly. I never felt like I was in the presence of literary royalty. She was so easy to talk to and so intoxicatingly fascinating. You immediately understood how criminals, victims and families that have undergone unspeakable tragedies all would talk to her and reveal their most private secrets. She started telling me about how her writing career had started in the late sixties and that her first crime stories were all rejected because she used her real name (Ann Stackhouse). Fighting the prejudice against women writing crime stories, it was only until she changed the name on her submissions to Andy Stack that she got her first story printed for True Detective magazine. Eventually she was able to publish under "Ann" - and by then she had changed her last name to Rule.
Volunteering at a suicide prevention hotline - she worked one night a week answering calls from the most troubled members of her community. Seated next to her was a handsome college student who was also answering calls. I could see how her easy-going manner and his friendly nature had them striking up a friendship almost instantly.
Her volunteer operator pal? Ted Bundy. She had no idea about his secret life until he was arrested. "For a long time I was holding out hope that he was innocent, that somehow this all was a terrible mistake," she told The Houston Chronicle in 2003. "And it wasn't just me, it was all the people who worked with him." And from this (can we say) "fortuitous" acquaintanceship came her (now) legendary book (and movie) THE STRANGER BESIDE ME about Bundy.
During our drive I asked Ann about her work schedule - as she lived alone with her cats and crime files. She matter-of-factly told me that she worked eight hours every day - seven days a week. She got up, sat down at her desk and wrote. Every day. Every week. Every month. She revealed that she really only traveled for research or book tours. And as soon as she returned home - she'd be back at her daily writing ritual. It had been too many years to remember the last time she took a vacation. As a divorced Mom raising four children, she had a work ethic unlike anyone I had ever met. I guess you don't get to be that prolific and successful if you aren't fully devoted, all the time.
After a ten minute drive towards the water (she lived on a cliff overlooking the shores of The Puget Sound), we reached her driveway. There appeared to be a small tented overhang for her two cars and a tiny little one room house. I wondered why The Queen of Crime would be living so modestly. This is the author of over thirty books (!), countless numbers of which were bestsellers. She had legions of fans around the world. We walked toward the little bungalow and a couple of cats meandered with us. Once through the little house we arrived at a tiny elevator door. It was open air with a gate - and another cat joined us. This turned out to be a funicular from the roadside parking down to a home far below - with no access whatsoever. The rickety, rusty little cage began to descend. As I ventured a quick glance over the edge, below us was a spectacular house perched on the edge of a rock jetty with a 180° view of the Pacific. And the western facing side of the house was all glass. I was beginning to understand why she felt that the good folks at MURDER SHE WROTE borrowed liberally from Ann's life when creating the fictional Miss Fletcher - who lived in a very similar location (albeit in Cabot Cove, Maine).
The creaky funicular finally lit at the entrance to her home. The cats exited first and we made our way to her home. The entranceway led to a cavernous living room, kitchen combined that was surrounded by that floor to ceiling wraparound glass wall. You could see all the way to the San Juan Islands and beyond. There might be a house in America with a more spectacular view - if so, I've never seen it or heard of it.
I pulled the pristine, never screened DVD out of my bag (I brought two - just in case) with the Technicolor label TOO LATE TO SAY GOODBYE Final Broadcast Master."Where should we watch this Ann?" I asked, not seeing a television anywhere in sight.
"Oh... yeah. I didn't own a big TV until this week. That box over there is the new flatscreen I just bought. Would you mind unpacking it and setting it up?"
Well. I was in the Television business. But I never knew that might include INSTALLATION. It didn't appear we'd be watching Rob Lowe and Stefanie Von Pfetten's marriage dissolve into possible murder together unless I got that new TV working, so I diligently unpacked the unwieldy box and set about putting the fifty-five inch SONY flat screen - and matching DVD player - together. As I struggled to read the directions and summon up my inner Tim Taylor, Ann called to me from the kitchen. "Would you like a Bloody Mary? I'm making one for myself."
Ok. It was barely ten a.m. on a school day - and the world's most prolific crime writer is offering me her handmade Bloody Mary. Who was I to refuse this request? I kept plugging red RCA cords to red outputs, then inputs. Ann walked over and handed me a frosty cold highball glass, filled to the brim with tomato juice, garnished with celery. I thanked her and took a big swig.
WHOA!! Have a little tomato mixer with your vodka! Ann Rule pours a heavy drink and I must be a California lightweight. This was nine parts SKYY and one part Mr. & Mrs. T. I commenced to sipping. All gulping was out. I still had white and green cords to hook up before Rob Lowe could grace her wide screen.
We got the SONY hooked up and the DVD fired up, ready to slide in our film. Ann was starting on her second Bloody Mary as I continued to nurse my first. The film came on and Ann was like a gleeful Mom watching her kid in their first school play. She talked non-stop, punctuating each scene with a new, revelatory piece of news about what we were watching. Ohhh. I just talked to her last week. She'll never get over it - but she likes to check in with me once a year or so...
And it was like that from the very first frame to the last credit and logo (mine of course). There were things she wished were a bit different, where we adjusted scenes or characters for legal or insurance purposes - but she was incredibly gracious and encouraging. I secretly sighed and took great pleasure. I wanted so desperately to please her and have her like our film.
After the film ended, she hugged and thanked me and then gave me a tour of the rest of the house. She talked lovingly about her daughter Leslie, who had gone into the family business of crime reporting herself. She pulled a few of Leslie's books off a big shelf and asked me to read them and see if Lifetime would adapt those too. She toted around the empty SKYY bottle as I still had half a glass full of her potent Vodka tomato concoction. "Want to see what I do with all my empty bottles?" I nodded and suppressed a big Vodka burp.
Ann opened a tiny door and we descended down into dark cellar. On came the lights and there was a long work bench and boxes and boxes of files and newspaper clippings. She ushered me over to the desk where she proudly displayed a bountiful family of dolls - or so I thought. Upon closer look they weren't real dolls, but SKYY bottles with little clothing coverings and tiny little knit heads on top. The royal blue glass would peak out about a third of the way down - the rest were vodka wardrobe and accessories. There were dozens in this family of SKYY dolls, each one a little different than the next. "This is what I do in my spare time and get my head away from murder and crime..." You couldn't help but be impressed by the detail of the bottle costumes and (more so) that this tiny woman had knocked off enough SKYY to populate a small town of blue glass dolls.
Ann was as proud of her village of Vodka figurines as she was of her crime books. You just had to smile.
The sun was getting low over the Pacific as the water turned a majestic blue and orange. As spectacular as the view was - it was even more amazing in the late afternoon. It was time to go. Up we went in the funicular with a few of the cats and back into the big American yacht-mobile. The rain had let up and Seattle glistened. All too soon we were back at the airport and I was alone on the curb waving good-bye.
That was the only time I made a trip to see Ann. Our two films did incredibly well on Lifetime and repeat over and over to this day. We spoke a few more times after that, especially after the lovely reviews and ratings for EVERYTHING SHE EVER WANTED, one of her personal favorite books.
To this day, I remain blessed that I had the chance to work with Ann and get to know her. She changed the true crime genre - and opened doors for women writers. She also made one hell of a Bloody Mary.
Ann Rule left us yesterday - and the world became a little less interesting and criminals caught a bit of a break.