Review of A Taste For Murder by Burl Barer


I’ll open with the proviso that the publisher of this book, Wild Blue Press, is the same publisher that is printing our next true crime book.  They did not solicit this review – I saw their notice for a flash-sale on this book for 99 cents and picked it up.  (If you follow them on Facebook, they do these kinds of sales often and obviously you can score some good true crime cheap.)  So, this is an unbiased review.  Also, I will give no spoilers. 

Burl Barer sucked me in early on with this book.  Frank Hernandez dies at home, dying a most horrible death…apparently from poisoning.  His wife suspected a colleague of the crime.  From there, Barer takes you on a joyride into the bizarre.  From the opening of this crime this seemed cut-and-dry, but it is like riding the Hulk rollercoaster at Universal Studios.  You think you’re going one way and bam! You’re suddenly spinning the opposite direction.

Mr Barer does an outstanding job of putting the reader in the community where this murder took place, Montebello, CA. Adding to that was the details of what this poisoning did the victim. This is not a clinical read, but one that helps you understand just how horrific this murder really was.    

I have never read any of Burl Barer’s books but I became a quick fan.  He leads you down a dark corridor, lantern in hand, on a journey that I didn’t expect at the start of the book.  I devoured chapter after chapter, not ever losing my interest.  After the first third of the book, it was as if there was a new twist every chapter or two.  Barer masterfully takes you on the long journey from murder to conviction. 

To say that this case was full of bizarre behavior is an understatement.  The murderer seems to be running con jobs within con jobs at times. 

About halfway through the book I realized I actually had heard something about this case.  That didn’t diminish it in the least for me. 

Is this a good solid true crime book?  Absolutely.  I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.  Well worth your time to consume (pun intended). 

Review – Killing Fields Season 2


Killing Field
There are no cold cases…only unsolved cases…

I am a junkie for good true crime and TV has let me down a lot this year.  Part of that is being an author of true crime books, but the majority is me being a fan of the genre.  After the OJ series on FX, I was hopeful to see more good prime-time true crime.  There was some, but most of the series came across as cheap, exploitative, or designed to sway public opinion (i.e. the Jon Benet series on A&E).

Discovery Channel, however, does not fail with the second season of Killing Fields.  Our boys are still working the case of Eugenie Boisfontaine but this season they shifted to a local man, Tommy Francise, who is implicated in not one murder but two.

Few series out there show you how investigations work as well as Killing Fields.  The dogged pursuit, the following of where the evidence takes investigators, and the cooperation with prosecutors.  This is a great series that takes you through small-town America, warts and all.

Tommy Francise is a bad apple all around.  Frankly I was stunned he wasn’t arrested for the murder of at least one of these men – he confessed the murder to one of the officers, Rodie.  I won’t ruin this season for you, but it ends with a big event, one you find yourself rooting and cheering through.

Tips for Eugenie Boisfontaine are still coming in too.  I personally hope our two officers in the series get an arrest soon on that case.

There are two other things that make this series a winner.  One is the filming.  You get lots of neat angles, drone-shots, etc., that just put you there in Louisiana with the investigators.  The second thing is the dialogue between officers Aubrey St. Angelo and Rodie Sanchez.  These two are opposite sides of the same coin.  They are funny and filled with steely determination.

The series is short and available on Discovery Channel or On-Demand.  Watch it – soak it in.  This is hope for everyone out there who wants to see cold cases resolve.


Review – HBO Documentary Beware the Slenderman

When urban legend becomes folklore becomes murder attempt

This HBO documentary is compelling, chilling, disturbing and frightening all at the same time.  We’ve probably all heard about the case – two young girls who attacked and nearly killed a friend of theirs because of a fictitious character on the internet called Slenderman. 

As a true crime writer, I knew that the media only marginally was telling the story…and I was right.  This documentary is not just about the crime, it is about how some urban legend takes becomes folklore that is trusted and believed.  I was familiar with this phenomena, having written a book on the Scottish cannibal, Sawney Bean.  Slenderman doesn’t exist, but thanks to the internet and Photoshop, this mythical strange tall kidnapper of children has developed a near cult-like following. 

This is a story of two quite normal young girls that get caught up in the stories about the Slenderman and believe they must kill their friend to prove themselves worthy of him.  Separately, they are seemingly normal kids.  Together, they became a single killer. There are elements here that harken back to Capote’s In Cold Blood

You may be quick to blame the parents for letting them on the web sites, but when you watch the show you come to realize that these were not negligent parents.  They simply had no idea of the power of images and words might have over their daughters. 

The filming of this documentary is outstanding.  If you watch Killing Fields on Discovery, you will get the same vibe here – lots of drone shots and angles of neighborhoods that cast a sinister shadow and add to the ambiance.  The use of the interrogation footage of the two would-be murderers is creepy all on its own.  One girl was more concerned about the distance she had walked before her capture rather than what she had done to her friend. The victim had been stabbed 19 times.  It’s gut wrenching and you can’t shut it off because it is so well done.    

This documentary is not the complete story – the victim and her family did not participate in the filming – for obvious reasons.  It is complete enough though….so much that you will never let your kids onto the internet again.  That cannot be a bad thing.  Some of the footage is so disturbing and captivating that you come through the viewing emotionally wrung out. 

While the Slenderman is digital folklore, his impact in our reality is quite tangible…and chilling.  I give this a solid five of five stars.  Kudos HBO!

My listing of the best true crime books…

My daughter and I write true crime, mostly because we love reading true crime.  The genre has changed a lot over the decades.  In some respects, the caliber of writing has gotten better.  As we become more connected as a people, we are learning about crimes that we might have otherwise never heard of.  That is one of the pluses and minuses of social media.

This is list of just my opinion.  You’re welcome to disagree with me.  I didn’t count books that were novelizations based on true crimes…I tried to stick to the straight-forward non-fiction true crime books. I also limited this to books that I have personally read – not just what others say is a good book in the genre.  The criteria is books that appealed to me or were compelling in their storytelling.  In other words, the criteria is “Blaine had to love the book.”

I will also say that my original opinions on some books have changed over time.  I reread books and sometimes they grow on me.

These are not in any particular order.  Don’t read anything into the sequence.  As a side note: I did not put any books I have written on the list.  Even my ego isn’t that big.


Helter Skelter

This was my first true crime book I ever consumed. I’m sure my mom will not win an award for letting her kid read this book, but regardless of that, I loved it.  It was a book that really put you in the chair of the prosecutor in going after Charles Manson.  It was a gripping and gruesome series of murders but somehow managed to hold onto me as a reader.

I also found the way they grayed out the victims in the photos to stand out.  You didn’t need to see the remains of those killed.  Not showing the victims in the images was far more powerful than showing the images.  Your imagination does the rest.  It is tasteful and cunning all at the same time.  I wish more true crime books adopted this approach.


The Onion Field

I picked up this book years ago and found it compelling.  This was not a “big crime” but Joseph Wambaugh took these killings and made me want to see them solved.  To me, what drew me in was the details that the author introduced. I learned one thing – it’s all in the details when you write true crime.


Case Closed

One of the biggest murder cases in US history was the assassination of President Kennedy.  I know a lot of true crime authors tend to move assassination books out of the genre.  I don’t because they are crimes.  Gerald Posner takes the stand that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed the President.  Yeah, I get it, it’s popular to hop on the conspiracy bandwagon.  For years I was there then this book flipped my switch.  Don’t make that leap unless you have read this book (and possibly History Reclaimed).  Posner has a very tight writing prose and pulls you into a mass of data like a guide navigating rapids on a river.


The Michigan Murders

Edward M. Keyes penned this book in 1976 when true crime was merely “non-fiction.” It covered a serial murder, John Norman Collins and his string of co-ed murders around Ann Arbor Michigan in 1967-1969.  Keyes changed all of the names of the participants in this case, which was its only downside.  I devoured this book in 1977 when I was in high school and it was in these pages I learned what a serial murderer was.

Even over the passage of time, this book has managed to stand the test and still is a solid read.


The Stranger Beside Me

So, you’re Ann Rule, researching a serial killer for a book, and it turns out he’s working right next to you.  If that doesn’t creep you out, nothing will.  Ted Bundy’s string of murders comes to life at the masterful hand of someone that knew him personally.  This book gave us the Godmother of True Crime Books. The pages on my copy are literally falling out…so what does that tell you?


Fatal Vision

Joe McGinniss’s book on murder of the MacDonald family by Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald has come under scrutiny over the years but still holds strong after the test of time.  This book has a it all – a cunning killer who tries to deflect the murder of his wife and two small children to a band of drug-addled killers.  McGinnis goes so far as to tell the reader that he went into the case convinced MacDonald was innocent and was even hired by MacDonald to tell the story, but comes to the conclusion that he is guilty.

Lost Girls

Lost Girls

I loved this book – it did something that was wonderful – delving into the victims more than the crimes themselves.  The Long Island serial murders remain unsolved.  Robert Kolker does an outstanding job of crafting the stories of the victims, often prying open the darker side of our humanity in the process.

With 10-16 victims, it is astonishing that no one has been brought to justice.  Why?  Perhaps the shattered lives of the victims contributed – or the incompetence of local authorities.  You have to read Lost Girls or watch The Killing Season to form your own opinion.

This book has recently become my binky – a comfortable read I go back to.



We are all sucked into the Zodiac murders as an unsolved string of cases.  Graysmith does a masterful job of pulling the reader into this killer and his subsequent works have done a good job of laying out the prime suspect.  I re-read this book recently and it still holds the test of time and the movie remains a go-to film for me to have on when I am writing true crime.  I have heard people nit-pick this book apart, but for me, I still find it holds me in tight – a real page turner.


When Evil Came to Good Hart

For full disclosure, Mardi Link is a friend of mine.  We both wrote for the same publisher.  She’s a friend of mine because she is an outstanding writer. Her cold case book about the execution of a family in upstate Michigan is my go-to book when I start writing about a cold case.  The book is not long but is deeply moving to read.  All of Mardi’s books are outstanding but this one is fantastic.  The frustrations of a cold cases really resonates in this book.   When I start on a cold case book – I reread this book.


The Wrong Man

I saw the TV version of this in 1975 with George Peppard, Guilty or Innocent – the Sam Sheppard Murder Case.  The case was the basis of the film and TV show, The Fugitive.  The case made F. Lee Bailey’s career.  I picked up The Wrong Man a few years ago and I was sucked into the intricacies of this murder all over again. This was a case that had it all – a wealthy doctor, a dead wife, a bushy-haired intruder, and a railroading of justice in the Midwest.


The Lindbergh Case

Jim Fisher covers the crime of the century before the OJ Simpson case – the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s child.  I find that this book holds the test of time, despite shots by the pundits.  There are other fantastic books out there, like Hauptman’s Ladder, but this one is my long-term favorite.  Everything from the bizarre characters that became drawn into the case to the show-trail are covered.


Green River Running Red

Ann Rule’s book in the Green River murders is solid. It is thick but captivating to read.  You come to appreciate how some officers refuse to give up on the victims and carry the fight on for years.  This was one of those lingering serial killer cases that was solved by good old-fashioned determined police-work.


In Cold Blood

I will confess here, I didn’t read In Cold Blood until about seven years ago.  I have no idea why I hadn’t gone to this book earlier.  After all, Capote define the genre of true crime with this book.  What is masterful is that Capote really doesn’t tell the reader what happened at the farmhouse until near the end of the book.  Our imaginations fill in the gaps, making the crimes feel even more grandiose in our minds.  That – my friends – is storytelling.



We thought we knew the depth of this tragedy at Columbine High School. After the national news media let the story die down, the author doggedly stuck to it.  What is revealed is how the news agencies misrepresented some of the elements of the entire spree, and how others went out of their way to exploit it.  If you think you know about what went down at Columbine High School and haven’t read this book – well, you’re wrong.

Update on our Colonial Parkway Murders Book

Walking the crime scene in search of something…anything. 

When you write a non-fiction book, at the beginning it is all research.  Researching is constant and ever-present.  In your head you are mentally writing, but most of what you are doing is digging, sifting, requesting – capturing information, organizing it, etc.  You want to write, but you know that you need to keep soaking in the data.  Oddly enough, when you get to the point where you are ready to write, there are still a lot of little holes in your information you are seeking to fill.  So you end up researching and writing full time.  I am willing to bet on the last week of writing I will still be talking to people, trying to get that last tid-bit of information squeezed in. Up until the last day before you ship the book off, you’re doing interviews.

Candidly, we end up doing some after the book is in print.  With a cold case book you are never really done until there is an arrest and conviction.  My co-author and daughter, Victoria and I know we are signing up for the long haul with the Colonial Parkway Murders.  That was part of the decision process.  People will reach out to us and we will continue our efforts.  Why?  Our books generate tips.  That’s the reality folks.  Those tips go to the authorities so they can do their job.  When we undertake a project like this we know we are diving in deep, making a potentially lifelong commitment.  That is – until an arrest is made.

The writing process (if that is what it is) can be confusing to an outsider.  You end up calling people back to get clarity as you go.  Think of it this way – you talk to Person X for an hour or two.  Then two months later you talk to Person Z and they say something that forces you to go back to Person X, and reach out to Person W for additional information or corroboration.  And we track all of this too.  Writing a true crime book on this scale is as much as a research challenge as it is a logistics exercise.

There’s some fringe interviews too – people we need to just track down and talk to. Fringe may not sound fair – but they are often folks that are not adding to the narrative of the story – but have some tid-bit that is worth extracting.  You never know where the evidence will take you.

A project like this is also a huge emotional drain.  Someone recently asked me what it is like to write a true crime book and my answer was, “I feel like I make a lot of people cry.”  It is not intentional but it happens.  There are laughs too.  Summoning memories in people is bittersweet, joyous, and painful all at the same time.  Anyone that thinks this doesn’t take a toll on an author is wrong.  I don’t break down during the interview – but usually afterwards, alone, I let the tears flow.  You couldn’t be human if you didn’t weep for the dead and what has been lost. Emotionally books like this take a toll on you as a writer. I get oddly depressed and short of temper in this stage of working on the book.  Thank God for my medication.

Yet weirdly, I love every minute of it.

When I was a kid, like most kids, I wanted to be a superhero and fight crime.  Now I’m doing that, in my own weird way – writing about cold cases, generating tips for the authorities, etc.  I lack a cape and tights (for which we are all thankful) but there is a satisfaction with the effort that is hard to describe.  Sometimes just telling the story is the best justice that you can shoot for.  You want the crime to be solved with cold cases, hell, you live for the crime to be solved. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t hope that a ringing phone is someone in law enforcement telling me that charges have been filed.

This book is different though – very different.  As writers, Victoria and I have the responsibility of making sense out of three decades and eight victims and four or more crime scenes and locales spread from Amelia County south of Richmond to Virginia Beach.   While a wealth of material is out there, it can be confusing to organize it into a narrative that a reader will want to read that is accurate.

All around me are piles of paper.  They look in disarray to everyone but me.  There are two massive notebooks filled with my interview notes.  Digital recordings chat in the background.  My big-honking notebooks doggedly marked flank the chaos. It is daunting.  Letters and mail everywhere around my workspace are all pieces of the puzzle.  Each fills in a little gap for me.  Each is precious in its own weird way.

Thanks to this book I have been to places in Virginia that I didn’t know existed.  I’ve done interviews in garages, police stations, and the homes of strangers – now friends.  I go out to the murder scenes as often as possible.  It is difficult to explain why.  There’s zero chance of me finding or seeing anything new after three decades.  Still, I go, hauling Victoria with me.  Some of it is respect.  Some of it is wishing that the road or the trees could talk, fill in that most important delta of information – who did it.  The locations are irrelevant, mere settings for the stories, but they are important.  In this case I learned a lot about the killer looking at where he plied his evil trade.  The strange similarities of the locations of these crimes can creep you out once you see them.

With the Colonial Parkway Murders, the work we have done has ruined the Parkway for me.  Up until this book, I used to look forward to driving the Parkway when I visited the area.  Now it is nagging reminder of what may or may not have happened there.  I cannot help but think of how eerie it is at twilight and how different it was at night.  The splendor is now overpowered by the events tied to that place in my mind.

So now, it’s back to the stacks of paper, the blurred handwriting, the cackle of the audio recordings.  It’s back to the darkness in search of the light.  It’s back into the confusion in search of the truth.  It’s back in time and in space.  It’s back trying to make sense of the senseless.  It’s back looking for the justice.

I would’t change a thing.

An eerie walk in the woods – one of the crime scenes today.

Book Review: Indefensible: The Missing Truth about Steven Avery, Teresa Halbach, and Making a Murderer by Michael Griesbach


I was seduced into reading this book, not because I had watched the Netflix Documentary (if that’s what it can be called) but by the hope to cut through some of the hype and get to facts.  Michael Griesbach’s book does that – though it takes a long road to get there.

As a true crime author I carefully watched the chatter/buzz about the Making of a Murderer documentary.  What I took note of was the gross omissions that many claimed the producers made.  In fairness, I’ve only seen snippets of the documentary myself.  I wanted to know the truth about the crime without having to binge-watch the documentary.  I wanted the truth.

Mr. Griesbach gets us there.  The first few chapters tell us why he wrote the book and his role in the prosecutor’s office.  It was okay, but dragged.  I found myself chomping at the bit to get to the details of the crime.

When I finally got there, I got the book I purchased…it delivered.  I have seen some professional debunking in true crime before, (Gerald Posner’s JFK book Case Closed as well as Vince Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History).  This book isn’t on par with those epics, but does a stalwart job of tearing apart the documentary with the skill that only a professional prosecutor could.

The author did a masterful job of picking apart even the background story of Mr. Avery as presented in the films.  The entire incident of the cat being set on fire, which I found online, was presented in almost a “boys having fun,” manner when in reality, it was pure, vicious animal cruelty.

I’m not getting into his guilt or innocence and the book does a good job of not laying that framework – only dismantling of the “evidence” presented in the documentary.

With a slow start – I give this book four out of five stars.  My only words of caution: I think you’ll enjoy it more if you have watched the documentary.

Our new true crime project – The Colonial Parkway Murders


As some of you know, I tend to focus on writing true crimes – specifically those tied to cold cases. I try and alternate between cold cases and other books (or closed cases) because of the incredible emotional investment you make with cold cases as an author.  Also, when you write about a cold case you are putting yourself out there, physically and personally.  Killers are often not fond of having their dirty deeds brought back into the spotlight – or their own involvement exposed. Also there’s the time you spend with families and friends of the victims.  If you don’t become emotionally engaged with them, then you’re not doing your job correctly as a writer.

On my true crime books for the last three years I partner with my daughter Victoria Hester as a co-author.  It helps greatly to have another set of eyes and hands work on a book – and our writing styles are similar.  We review ideas for books constantly.  It isn’t your garden-variety father-daughter relationship.  Yes, I haul her out to crime scenes.  For us, that’s oddly normal.

Many readers send clippings or emails with suggestions.  It’s part of being a true crime author.  Everyone’s murder is a potential book.

When we look at cold cases as possible subjects for a book there are things we look for that are more gut instinct than science.  People come to us all of the time with, “You have to look into the murder of X.”  In many cases we do just that, pulling newspaper articles and seeing if there is indeed something interesting there, something that catches our attention.

Ninety-nine percent of the time it is a tragic crime but not one that would compel us to spend 8-15 months of research and write.  That isn’t us downplaying the sadness of that loss, but a harsh reality – not all murders are worth the incredible investment of time.  Not every crime warrants a book about it.  I know people don’t like to hear that, especially if it is their friend or loved one – but that is often the truth of the matter.

Sometimes I do cursory research into a subject to write a magazine article about it – before jumping in and doing a book.  This allows me to test the waters.  This allows me to validate my assumptions about the case(s).

So what do we look for?

Is there a story to be told – one that will engage and captivate the reader?  We are not detectives; we are story tellers.  I say this often with people so their expectations are managed.   We investigate cases – that is true.  There has to be a narrative that is going to grab the reader. While it sounds cruel to say that some crimes are boring, a better choice of description might be “routine.”  People have to want to read the story.  In some ways they have to identify with the characters and events surrounding the crime(s).

Did the crime leave an imprint on the community where it happened?  People want to read about things their friends and family know or talk about.   Events of significance to a community often resonate with readers outside of that community.  I want to write books that people will talk about because they are already talking about them.

Is there a twist – something that will capture the reader’s attention?  This usually takes the form of something new that we can introduce to the story.  Are there misperceptions that can be set straight?  Are there new facts we can present readers?  We always want to be more than a regurgitation of what has appeared already in the newspaper accounts.  This is always hard to gauge at the start of a project – you don’t know what you don’t know.  Intuition plays a big part here.

Does the story speak to us as writers?  Do we feel any sort of connection with the victims?  We like writing about people that readers can identify with.  That first step is for us to feel some sort of connection with the victims and/or their families.  For us to write about people, we have to in some way have to empathize with where they were in life, what they were doing, what they were achieving.  It doesn’t have to be substantive or tangible – just a feeling.  Sometimes those connections are generational (I was a child of the 70’s and 80’s) sometimes it is geographical.

One reader/far keeps asking me to look into the death of a friend who was involved with drugs who had an abusive relationship with her boyfriend (who allegedly killed her).  While I am sympathetic; this victim did not lead a life that most people can connect with.  While her death was tragic, it is simply not relatable enough for most readers.

Do we have the support of law enforcement?  In most cases we strive to have a positive relationship with law enforcement.  It is never our intention to create problems for the successful prosecution of a cold case.  We’re not tools for the police, we operate independently.  Sometimes those connections are pretty strong, sometimes they are one-way doors where we share information and never hear the results.

Has enough time come to pass on the case?  Emotional wounds never heal completely, which is one reason we don’t go after current cases.  It is important for some time to have passed, so that the case is indeed truly cold.  Personally I like the older cases because they allow us to bake in some historical context to the book.  It is one thing to give a reader a mental picture of a place; it is another to give them a picture of that place in a different time.  It adds to the challenges and fun in the writing.

Is there intrigue?  Will the readers be curious about the case still?  Will they want more?  Will the readers care – either about the victims or the crimes themselves?  Cold cases are great for this because they have an element of mystery.  The reader is a detective, piecing together the information too. We simply provide the journey for the reader.

Can we do some good by writing the book (generating new tips or leads – righting a wrong)?  We do not solve cases.  We’re writers.  Our job is to take the facts and weave a good readable story.   Our readers will solve the cases – most likely one of them knows a tip or clue that could help resolve a case.  For us, what is important is an ability to generate tips.  Don’t kid yourself – I get a tip or so every month on one of the cases we’ve written about.  We turn them over to the police to act on.  Why?  Simply put, we want to write the last chapters on the cold case books – the arrest and conviction of the killers.

All of this criteria is entirely subjective on our part.

The Colonial Parkway Murders was an easy choice for us. 

I wrote an article about the case for Real Crime magazine last summer on the cases and became hooked.  I got Victoria in the loop and we’ve been diligently doing research on these murders for months now.  I’ve been holding back on revealing too much what we’ve been working on until we had some degree of contact with all of the victim’s families.  Also, in just a few hours, we are coming up on the anniversary of the first the string of murders and disappearances coined as the Colonial Parkway Murders.

Our weekends have been burned and churned with trips all across the state, especially the Tidewater region.  We have met some truly remarkable people – and the stories we have gathered are heart-wrenching and even inspiring.

It is a huge project and we have been helped by many fantastic people along the way so far.   We’ve had a fantastic publisher lined up for this for months now, Wild Blue Press.  They seem excited about the book, as are we. To be honest, this project is daunting.  It is hard enough to capture a single murder – and in this case we are dealing with six victims and two victims that are missing.

Folks, I have never written about a case this incredible.  There are stories here, compelling, tragic, and much more.  This book is forcing us to up our game, so to speak.

I’ll be writing more about these cases and what we’ve learned in our own long investigation into these crimes.  The working title for the book is A Special Kind of Evil – because for any one or any group of people to inflict this kind of horror on innocent victims and their families – they must possess a special kind of dark, twisted evil in their souls. I say working title, because publishers love to change things.

For now, I want to offer a moment of reflection as we approach this dark anniversary of the first of these murders.

If you have any good stories or memories about these cases or the victims, please reach out to me at  If you have any tips for law enforcement, please contact the Virginia State Police or the FBI.

For more information – please check out these newly released articles from the Daily Press.

As my friend David Schock once said, “Somebody out there knows something…”