Written for the Los Angeles Times, 2004 

I was signing my latest crime novel at a bookstore recently when a grandmotherly woman wearing a linen suit and designer glasses came up and asked if it contained graphic violence. 

I assured her that although my series is sexy and edgy, it's certainly not "slasher" fare. 

"Oh," said the woman, clearly disappointed. "I love serial killer books. The gorier the better." 

She is not alone. Ever since Cain killed Abel, murder has made an indelible stain on the human race, one that both repels and fascinates us. Even as we recoil in disgust, a tiny voice inside wonders what makes a human being capable of taking another's life. What, then, of the person who kills more than once? Who grows addicted to the sexual pleasure and raw power of transgressing humanity's ultimate commandment? Surely these people deserve to roast in one of Dante's hells. Perversely, they also command an outsized part of our collective imagination. 

There is a certain frisson to entering this world from the comfort of a well-lighted armchair, the doors double bolted, a cup of tea at our side and a cat in our lap. We shiver vicariously for the victim and rue the randomness of fate. It's like the freeway car crash. We can't look. We can't not look. Thank God it's not happening to us! 

But what if it is? What if, at this very moment, someone is snipping the phone line and prying open a window? Serial killer books tap into inchoate fears—our childhood terror of the dark, the nightmare in the closet, the bogeyman under the bed. Consider the Washington, D.C., sniper. The Son of Sam. Los Angeles' own Lucifers—like the Night Stalker, who chose middle-class victims in suburban homes. We tell ourselves that if we stay out of bad areas and take precautions, we'll be safe. Serial killers explode that myth. 

For those intrigued by humanity's darkest impulses, this fall offers a trio of true-crime books about purportedly the worst serial killer in history, a man who plagued the Pacific Northwest for two decades before being caught and sentenced to life in prison, thanks to advances in DNA technology. He is Gary Ridgway, the "Green River Killer," who admitted killing 48 young prostitutes in the 1980s and who may have murdered 70 in all. Serial killers seem to require nicknames, and Ridgway's moniker arose because he dumped his first victims into the Green River, outside Seattle. 

All three books are by longtime Seattle-area residents haunted by the case. "Chasing the Devil" is by King County Sheriff David Reichert, who pursued the Green River Killer from the time he was a rookie homicide detective in 1982. Carlton Smith and Tomas Guillen, who reported the story for the Seattle Times, have updated their 1991 bestseller, "The Search for the Green River Killer." And "Green River, Running Red," the most psychologically astute of the bunch, is by Ann Rule, the author of 21 previous true-crime bestsellers. 

Hard-core devotees of serial killer lore will want to read all three: Each has its own strengths and perspectives (cop, reporter, storyteller). But readers will find that the saga of Gary Ridgway suffers from flaws that reflect more on the dramatic arc of the story itself than on the authors' efforts to document it. The murders occurred mainly from 1982 to '84, but Ridgway wasn't caught until 2001, giving the tale a curious slackness. The story lacks a larger-than-life hero, even though publishers have tried to cast Reichert in this role, posing him along the banks of the Green River, steely eyes glinting off the back cover. But without minimizing his exploits in "Chasing the Devil," the sheriff is careful to credit the hundreds of officers he worked with. If anyone's the hero here, it's the technology that matched 18-year- old strands of degraded DNA recovered from semen found in the victims' bodies to saliva swabs taken from Ridgway. 

The more crucial problem, though, is the lackluster personality of Ridgway himself. Unlike killers whose sheer perversity and charisma elevate them to outlaw celebrity status, Ridgway as a diabolical villain able to rivet us for an entire book falls short. He's no Ted Bundy, with his high IQ, chiseled features and law school admission. He's not even a John Wayne Gacy, with his deeply weird clown paintings and basement filled with dead boys. 

Ridgway embodies Hannah Arendt's principle of the "banality of evil." A quiet, weaselly, thrice-married fellow of small stature and marginal intelligence, Ridgway cultivated the appearance of normality, though he wasn't always successful: Co-workers at the automotive plant where he painted trucks for more than 20 years found him odd and jokingly referred to him as "Green River Gary." Police interviewed him twice in the 1980s as a Green River suspect, but, as Smith and Guillen write, Ridgway passed his interviews and lie detector tests with flying colors. A sociopath who lacked a conscience, he merely "relaxed" and answered questions as they came. 

Ridgway made no secret of his penchant for prostitutes, trolling the notorious Sea-Tac strip of fast-food outlets and cheap motels near the Seattle International Airport where they congregated. But he was so nondescript that the working girls barely remembered the john their friends disappeared with, never to be seen again. In his confession, Ridgway paid these women back in kind, calling them "garbage" and telling police he couldn't recall their names, only where he dumped them. A necrophiliac, he returned to the bodies until they decomposed. To him they were just objects to use and discard. He might have been pulling wings off flies. 

Even during his sentencing hearing, Ridgway had trouble sounding repentant. "I have tried hard to remember as much as I could to help the detectives find and recover the ladys [sic]," he said in a prepared statement quoted in full by all three books. "I have tried for a long time to keep from killing anymore ladys. I am very sorry for the Ladys that were not found." The canned words and self- pitying tears didn't impress Judge Richard Jones, who told Ridgway: "The remarkable thing about you is your Teflon-coated emotions and complete absence of genuine compassion for the young women you murdered." 

It says something about our need for transgression that serial killers now inspire their own cults. Every crime writer knows that evil is more fascinating than good, but let's face it, there is something fetishistic in people who seek out autographs and paintings of serial killers, collecting "trophies" of their favorites much the same way killers keep trophies of their victims. At the far end of this spectrum are female groupies who marry serial killers on Death Row, such as the woman who contrived to wed Ted Bundy and even have a child by him—the ultimate trophy. 

Bundy's ghost haunts these books. When the Green River murders began, police were still reeling from the "Ted" murders, which started in Seattle, where Bundy lived. Some of the same detectives worked both cases. In 1984, Reichert and Washington criminal investigator Bob Keppel even flew to a Florida prison to pick Bundy's brain about how to catch the new monster stalking their city. Bundy, a narcissistic egomaniac, ultimately provided nothing useful. 

Rule staffed a late-night crisis hotline with Bundy in the 1970s and wrote the seminal book "The Stranger Beside Me" to reconcile the polite and sympathetic young man she first knew with the monster who was later executed. A former Seattle police detective active in victims' advocacy groups, Rule has made a career of writing books that humanize murder victims and reconstruct the psychological motivations of their killers. "Green River, Running Red" is no exception. Rule eschews the "police procedural" style, focusing instead on Ridgway's victims with carefully constructed profiles and photos of each girl. A parallel tale, starting early in the book, introduces the as-yet-anonymous killer with this: "He was a strange little boy who seemed half-formed, a newt in a world of stronger creatures." She describes the child's strange, violent urges, his bed-wetting, his ridicule by classmates for being slow. By age 8, he was setting fires. 

None of the books contains footnotes, so it's hard to say if poetic license was taken. Smith and Guillen's collaboration, written in a brisk journalistic style and bristling with facts, moves chronologically and provides the best context, but it suffers from being 13 years old. The reader gets 472 pages about the hunt for an unknown killer and a slapped-on 52-page epilogue about Ridgway's arrest and confession. At 314 pages, "Chasing the Devil" offers the briefest but most personal story. Reichert discusses his single- minded pursuit of the killer, his anguish as the murders piled up and his confrontation with Ridgway once he was caught. Throughout, he recounts the toll the case took on his family and how his faith helped him survive. The sheriff even served as a pallbearer at one victim's funeral at her parents' request. 

But it is Rule who best conveys the emotional truth of the Green River case. She has an eye for the telling anecdote and schoolgirl poem, mining interviews and police documents, especially Ridgway's confession and his interview by an FBI psychiatrist. She's also good at conveying the terror that gripped her community as so many girls disappeared off crowded streets. Some became prostitutes after falling into drugs and the hands of predatory pimps, despite caring parents. But many more turned to the streets after childhood sexual abuse, dysfunctional home lives, poverty and institutionalization. A number of Green River victims left behind young children: Petite Marcia Fay Chapman lived on the Sea-Tac strip and hooked to support her three kids. Pretty blond Debra Estes was a child herself when she ran away from home at 12 and became a prostitute. Trina Hunter's male relatives locked her in an attic when she wasn't turning tricks for them. The litany of horror goes on and on. 

The stories—detail piled upon excruciating detail—hammer home Ridgway's monstrousness. For every young woman he killed, Ridgway left a vortex of suffering and tragedy for families that rippled into the next generation. Rule writes that Mary Bridget Meehan, who was 18 and eight months pregnant when Ridgway killed her, had a child who later also became a murder victim. Smith and Guillen report that the daughter of beautiful, blond 18-year-old Ridgway victim Keli McGinniss became a teen prostitute. It seems that the legacy of violent death begets its own poisonous half- life. 

Unlike Bundy's victims, who were tricked by his fake cast or crutches into helping him to his car, Ridgway's clambered into his truck on their own to trade sex for money. Some weren't reported missing for weeks. At least four were never identified, remaining piles of anonymous bones. Ridgway usually strangled women at his home or in the woods during sex, using plastic sheets and gloves to dispose of the bodies, which he dumped in clusters throughout the Washington wilderness and as far away as Oregon to throw off the police. Some bodies weren't recovered until years later when Ridgway, in a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty, led police to the remains, dashing the last hopes of families who imagined their loved ones had disappeared into a better life. The police believed that Ridgway, a man with a low IQ, was an idiot savant when it came to murder. 

From his early years, all three books show, the Green River Killer was obsessed with fantasies of murder and revenge. As a boy he killed a family cat by locking it in an ice chest. In junior high school, he lured a 6-year-old into the woods, stabbed him with a kitchen knife and laughed. "I always wanted to know what it felt like to kill somebody," he told his victim. (Rule says the boy survived and Ridgway wasn't caught because the boy never clearly saw who attacked him.) The authors also say that Ridgway's mother was sexually inappropriate with him, vigorously washing his genitals into his teens when Ridgway wet the bed, which aroused him sexually. 

He began frequenting prostitutes while overseas with the Navy and continued back home in the Northwest, despite raging at his first two wives for cheating on him. He fathered a son and brought him along on several killing sprees, leaving the young boy strapped into his car seat while he waded into the bushes for sex and strangulation. Ridgway told authorities that he probably would have killed his own son had the boy seen him murdering a victim. Interestingly, Ridgway's third and happiest marriage slowed him down dramatically, perhaps because domesticity tempered his anger against women. But not completely. Ridgway admitted to killing several women after 1984. When police finally arrested him in 2001, they found him cruising the strip where prostitutes hung out and feared he was getting ready to kill again. 

What took them so long? Ridgway left little evidence, preyed on an extremely vulnerable population and scattered the bodies over several states. The investigation was hampered by infighting, lack of political will and a failure of communication among jurisdictions. Important clues fell through the cracks or weren't unearthed until years later, such as testimony from the only known survivor of a Ridgway attack, a prostitute who in 1985 reported that he tried to strangle her during oral sex five years earlier. (Ridgway said he choked her after she bit him, and, lacking other evidence, police let him go.) Three earlier suspects arrested with much media hoopla also failed to pan out, including a prurient Seattle taxi driver who liked sex with teen prostitutes and offered to help the police. The sheer number of leads made for mountains of paperwork—more than 1 million pages and 16,000 photos alone, Smith and Guillen report—and computers and technology weren't nearly as sophisticated in the early 1980s as they were later. 

There is a lot of finger-pointing in these books but plenty of blame to go around. Smith and Guillen come down hardest on the police. Reichert criticizes the circus-like media coverage and internecine police fighting. Rule chides a complacent public that gave dead prostitutes a lower priority than dead coeds. All three books offer a devastating indictment of a society that could let 48 mostly teenage girls disappear in plain sight and allow their killer to remain at large for so long. Each of those women was a victim long before she stepped into Ridgway's truck. For all of them, the safety net failed miserably. And maybe that's the most horrible story of all.