A story of crime and punishment should be a morality tale. When a murder is committed in fiction, we expect there to be a lesson in it that justifies the taking of a life. But sometimes, in an actual crime, there is no moral—or at least no payoff that offers comfort. To be first-rate, a true-crime writer must establish the wider significance of her story, even when it is undermined by the realities of the case and the character of the killer. Lack of illumination is the major flaw in Ann Rule's otherwise gripping new book, If You Really Loved Me: A True Story of Desire and Murder.
Ms. Rule, the author of Small Sacrifices and The Stranger Beside Me, is a former Seattle police officer, and she writes of detectives, their procedures and temperaments in a flat, just-the-facts style that has quiet authority. She spins a narrative with the skill of these detectives, who must hold in their minds contradictory statements, observations and assessments and make sense—and a good case—out of them all.
The case described in If You Really Loved Me is bizarre enough to rivet anyone's attention. It revolves around one David Arnold Brown of Orange County, California, currently imprisoned for life without parole.
In 1985, Mr. Brown was 32, and in every way a self-made man. With only an eighth-grade education,...