On January 24th, 1989, Ted Bundy — then America’s most notorious serial killer — was executed by the state of Florida. Before he died, he confessed to all of his crimes and then gave an interview where he blamed it all on an addiction to pornography. It was all a part of a scheme to avoid the electric chair but it didn’t work and he was put to death while thousands stood outside the prison and cheered.
Or was he?
The 1992 novel, The Stranger Returns, suggests that Bundy — who was once as notorious for his ability to escape custody as for his murderous rampage — escaped one last time. A duplicate was sent to the electric chair while Bundy made his escape. I know that probably made no sense when you read it in this review. It really doesn’t make much sense in the book either. But I guess things had to start somewhere.
Now believed to be dead, Bundy is free to change his identity, romance a young mother, and once again resume his murderous ways. Only one man suspects that Bundy may have cheated the executioner, the father of one of his victims. While he tries to get someone to listen to his theory about Bundy being alive, Bundy continues to move across the landscape like a dark shadow of death.
Earlier this year, it seemed like the entire nation briefly went Bundy crazy. There was a documentary on Netflix. Zac Efron starred in a movie. It seem like almost every true crime show around did at least one episode on Bundy this year. 30 years after his execution, Ted Bundy was trending on twitter, a macabre testament to the power of celebrity.
I found myself thinking about Bundy’s morbid fame as I read The Stranger Returns. The book was well-written and it was a quick read but it was still a bit troublesome that the book was essentially a novel starring Ted Bundy. Too often, the book treated him like some sort of Hannibal Lecter-type character whereas Bundy was actually, by most accounts, an impotent drunk who was never as handsome, charming, or intelligent as he is frequently made out to be. What is this power that a loser like Bundy holds over the popular imagination?
The Stranger Returns is a testament to that power. I mean, how many other real-life serial killers have starred in a novel? That’s usually an honor reserved for vampire hunters like Abraham Lincoln. To be honest, I probably would have liked this book better if it had been about someone who thought he was Ted Bundy as opposed to being Ted Bundy himself. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed the book if it had featured Bundy’s ghost or if Bundy had used some other supernatural check to come back to life. But making Bundy into some sort of criminal genius was just a bit too icky for me.
Incidentally, I found this book in my aunt’s paperback collection. According to her, she found the book being sold in the “true crime” section of Half-Price Books. Fortunately, it’s not true crime. Ted Bundy is dead and good riddance.