I am an irregular true crime reader, and I have a filter – my husband, who reads furiously in this genre, and who is happy to point out the especially “good ones.” I read all of Ann Rule, of course, as she’s a master of characterization as much as any novelist, and Kathryn Casey, who dedicates her book to Ann Rule, certainly seems to be following in Rule’s footsteps, to which I can only give a cheer. Rule’s careful set up of a crime, reaching back into the pasts of the victims as well as the killers, her use of the settings, and her swift trial coverage all give her books that something extra which lots of true crime books don’t have. Some might say that the extra something is simple research, but that’s not all of it – she also has an ability to cast an almost novelistic eye on what she’s writing about to make it understandable and gripping. I’m happy to say that Kathryn Casey shares these skills.
As with any good Ann Rule book, Casey is able to work up a head of indignant steam again the perpetrator of whatever the crime may be. In this case, the woman who is the central character of this book, Celeste Beard, couldn’t be more wicked if she’d been dreamed up by a novelist. Long before Celeste reaches her ultimate crime, she’s doing things like leaving her twin daughters in foster homes when she doesn’t feel like taking care of them (they get in the way of her fun), abusing a series of husbands who seem to be decent men, and perpetrating insurance fraud. When Celeste finally ends up in Austin, Texas, working as a waitress at a ritzy country club, you as the reader know it can’t be good news when the wealthy, kind hearted, and recently bereaved Steve Beard hires her to be his “housekeeper.” As Celeste’s only “housekeeping” skill is spending money – she sends all the laundry, even underwear, out to be dry cleaned – it’s hardly a surprise when Steve ends up marrying her and hiring a maid to tend to the inevitably large dream home that he and Celeste build together, and that Celeste spends hundreds of thousands of dollars furnishing. As the book opens with Steve being airlifted out of the house after being shot as he lay in his bed, it’s not a surprise to say that Celeste was mainly after his money.
I’m not sure if the outrage I felt when I read this book was greater for Celeste’s twin daughters – who Celeste left to their own devices, yanked away from a father that loved them, just because she could, and verbally abused – or for the obviously decent, sweet natured and apparently fatally naive Steve Beard, who despite himself keeps returning to Celeste after she does one outrageous thing after another. Almost as bad is the fact that Celeste cuts Steve off from any contact with his adult children – the family had always been a close one, and they are kept away from his hospital room. It’s heartbreaking. The other victim in this scenario is a gay woman named Tracey who Celeste meets in a mental institution, and who falls under Celeste’s spell as surely as Steve Beard. What Celeste gets Tracy to do is pretty incredible, but Casey has laid the groundwork so throughly that it’s a completely understandable development.
When Casey goes into Ann Rule “warrior mode” at the end of the book – you accompany the cops as they nail together a case against Celeste, and the prosecutors who battle her in the courtroom – you’re completely on their side. Nothing is worse than a true crime book that ends with the perpetrator getting off for the horrific crimes they’ve committed, and like any mystery reader, I like to see loose ends neatly tied up. Casey is able to do both: she delivers Celeste to her well deserved new home in prison, and she ties up loose ends with the survivors still standing at the end of the book. While Casey’s book doesn’t bring Steve Beard back to life, it brings him a degree of justice. He’s a memorable character, and in that, Casey has given him a kind of immortality. Hopefully this is the start of a long writing career for a talented new writer. And the real reason to read a true crime book, ladies and gentlemen: no-one could make this up.