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American Nightmare

by Florence King

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster, 495 pp., $27.50)

Sometimes a book is so good that the reviewer does not know where to begin. It doesn’t happen often, but this is one of those times. I have tried out a dozen different ledes but they all seemed inadequate to the task. I can’t sit here any longer staring at a blank screen or I’ll miss my deadline, so I’ll get right to it: Jeff Guinn, a former investigative reporter with books on Wyatt Earp and Bonnie and Clyde to his credit, has produced not only the best biography of Charles Manson, but the best study of American true crime since Victoria Lincoln’s A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight.

Manson makes a good test case for the notorious American attention span. To people who were adults in 1969, when he ordered his brainwashed female followers to murder rich Hollywood celebrities, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, he was considered the epitome of La-La Land decadence and hippie depravity. Now, with the 21st century upon us, he is vaguely remembered as a cool outlaw in the Robin Hood mold by today’s college students, who can buy T-shirts displaying his picture in their campus gift shops. Both memories lean too heavily on the exotic, because he was actually a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant blue-collar hick.

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