Bradley Cunningham seemed like the perfect husband: handsome, rich, intelligent and charming. When Brad's ex-wife Cheryl was found brutally murdered and Brad was accused of the crime his new wife, Sara, didn't believe it. She adopted Brad and Cheryl's sons, whom she loved as her own and they all lived together in a luxurious family home. Their perfect life began to unravel as more details came to light about Brad's four previous marriages, the lies he had told and the many devastated women he had left in his wake.
I don't normally read true crime books, but I'm a real sucker for author talks. If I hear an author speaking about the book they've written and why and how they came to write it I nearly always feel compelled to read the book. When I heard Ann Rule interviewed by John Safran for his true crime series John Safran's True Crime
on ABC radio my curiosity was piqued. To my frustration I couldn't find The Stranger Beside Me
, the book she was actually talking about in the interview, in audiobook format so I settled for this one instead. By the sounds of things Dead By Sunset
is pretty representative of Rule's usual style so it seemed as good a place to start as any.
The book starts with the gruesome discovery of Cheryl's body. She was found in her car which the killer had pushed into the road with the engine running hoping to cause an accident which would cover up the crime. Fortunately a good samaritan found the car and pushed it onto the shoulder before it could cause a massive pile up. Rule then goes back to Brad's childhood, including his turbulent relationship with his parents before returning to the events that took place after Cheryl's death. With the level of detail Rule goes into about Brad's background and various court cases it would have been easy for the story to become quite boring, but it's a testament to Ann Rule's talent that it's not. Instead I found I virtually had my headphones glued to my ears right until the end. I wouldn't say it's an enjoyable book to read, since it mostly filled me with a sense of outrage, but it is quite addictive.
As there was not enough evidence to charge Brad with her murder associates of Cheryl's take Brad to court in a civil trial instead, hoping to get compensation to be paid to her sons and some acknowledgement of Brad's guilt. By the end of it I was desperate to hear that Bradley Cunningham was eventually punished for all the terrible things he had done to so many women. Spoiler warning: It's okay, he was. He will probably never acknowlege his own guilt but at least he's in jail and won't be hurting any more women.
I was a little wary of reading a true crime book since while I enjoy horror stories I did not want to hear details of horrific things happening to real people. Fortunately though, this book doesn't dwell much on the murder itself. The identity of the killer is known from the outset, so the focus is not on what happened or who did it but on why he did it. I found the way Bradley Cunningham systematically destroyed his wives emotionally much more difficult to hear about than Cheryl's death. In addition to convincing them that they were stupid and useless he punished them in a thousand petty ways like having his pregnant ex-wife's electricity cut off over the holiday weekend when her baby was due then having her car repossessed while she was giving birth.
I suppose I came to enjoy my anger over these events in the same way some people listen to talkback radio to rage about other people's politics or pick fights with strangers on the internet. In a world full of shades of grey sometimes it's good to feel like you're absolutely positively in the right.
In conclusion, even if, like me, you are not really into true crime books you might get something out of this one since it is very well executed, no pun intended. Do not read this book unless you are prepared to get angry.