On the Page: Charles Manson and Juan Gabriel Vásquez

MANSON -- Book JacketManson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson

Jeff Guinn

(Simon & Schuster, 512 pp., $27.50)

Forty years have passed since the massacres performed by the followers of self-styled “guru” Charles Manson, and the world is still fascinated by the topic. Between lead prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (which was the most-read true crime book in history), Ed Sanders’s The Family and the jailhouse memoirs of two Mansonites who participated in the killings (Susan Atkins and Charles “Tex” Watson), there’s certainly no shortage of firsthand information on the subject.

So what does Jeff Guinn’s new book bring to the table? Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson is a fractured retelling of the same story but with new sources that expand on “Charlie’s” childhood. By far the best portion is Manson’s third act: a prolonged courtroom circus that, for all its horror, contains a Bonfire of the Vanities levels of litigious satire. Mr. Guinn paints public prosecutor Bugliosi as an ambitious opportunist, almost as bad as the grandstanding Irving Kanarek or the other 139 lawyers who all tried to elbow their way into the spotlight to defend Charlie and the girls.

A fascinating commentary on celebrity cases and the various motives and personalities of the police and litigators who take on such assignments, the Manson case is a cautionary tale of fame and the lengths men go to achieve it. Readers today may find Mr. Guinn’s recreation of the trial even more disturbingly relevant than the cult leader himself.—Drew Grant

THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING - CoverThe Sound of Things Falling

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, trans. Anne McLean

(Riverhead Books, 270 pp., $27.95)

After watching an acquaintance from his favorite pool hall, Ricardo Laverde, cry while listening to a mysterious tape on headphones in a Bogotá library, a young law professor and recent father named Antonio Yammara follows him outside, where Ricardo is shot dead. Antonio survives with a bullet wound and post-traumatic stress. The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s moving, if occasionally ponderous, third novel, follows Antonio as he tries to make sense of the attack and learn the identity of the shadowy Ricardo, who was reputed to have recently been released from prison.

Mr. Vásquez nimbly cuts a path across three generations of Ricardo’s family and homes in on Ricardo’s fateful meeting, which is more than two decades before his murder, with Elaine Fritts, an American Peace Corps volunteer, who arrived in a country that “was still just starting barely discovering its place in the world.” They married, and he made a fortune running drugs by plane but got caught, Antonio eventually learns from the couple’s daughter, Maya Fritts. She is similarly haunted by the loss and is also on the hunt for information and resolution. She has the recording that he was listening to that day.

As details of personal tragedies are slowly pieced together, the novel presents the human toll exacted by the country’s years of violence and asks how the generation that grew up within it—like Maya and Antonio—can live in its wake. It is about, as Antonio’s doctor tells him, “what to do to not be afraid, or to have a reasonable amount of fear, like everyone has.”—Andrew Russeth