A Scary Murder in Oregon

Dead By Sunset: Perfect Husband, Perfect Killer? By Ann Rule

This creepy book, from the master of true crime, is better-plotted than the murder itself. Ann Rule (Small Sacrifices, 1987, etc.) begins her latest on an Oregon highway at rush hour, a van with blood-spattered windows and an empty infant seat stalled crosswise in the left-hand lane.

The dead woman inside leads to ex-husband Brad Cunningham, whose personal history leans toward the shady. Cunningham married five times before the age of 40, his aggressive charm and permanent dissatisfaction leading him to dozens of women.

Thick-necked, well-dressed, and possessed of enough stamina to spend every penny earned by whomever he found himself married to, Cunningham cut a formidable figure. But it was controlling his children, especially his sons, that really mattered to him.

Always a collector, Cunningham amassed trucks, lavish homes, and babies at a frenetic pace, but former wives maintained their distance and kept the children hidden whenever Brad came calling. It is only after her three boys are born that fourth wife Cheryl Keeton recognizes the danger of being Brad’s wife. Their vitriolic separation is a textbook case in ugly splits, and it is rendered in gossipy, depressing, and mesmeric detail. When police find Cheryl’s body battered beyond recognition in the van, Brad is the obvious suspect.

Rule keeps the reader’s expectations roiling during the years it takes Oregon police to solve the crime, and the life she examines is indeed a strange one. Cunningham’s eccentricities gradually alchemize into evil, and the murder trial–in which he represents himself–is pure lunacy. Not enough forensic detail for the blood-and-fiber crowd, but this is a terrific read and a moving tale that ends with a strange redemption.

Dead By Sunset: Perfect Husband, Perfect Killer? By Ann Rule (Simon & Schuster, 448pp)

Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

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