Tangled Vines: Power, Privilege, and the Murdaugh Family Murders by John Glatt

Are we ready for another dive into the sordid world of Alex Murdaugh? Just months ago, we saw him convicted of the double homicide of his wife and son, an outcome we had prepared for by watching gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial and supplementing our study with documentaries and podcasts that wrung every detail of background and every droplet of atmosphere from the crime. Now, if the conclusion of the trial has left us with some time on our hands, if we find ourselves missing the company of Big Red and Fast Eddie, Buster and Bubba, maybe Tangled Vines: Power, Privilege, and the Murdaugh Family Murders is just what we need.

John Glatt, author of more than 20 true-crime books, pulls aside the South Carolina Low Country’s curtain of Spanish moss and steps smoothly into its swamp of corruption, embezzlement, and murder, delivering a Baedeker of the family’s steady rise and spectacular fall.

The Murdaugh family in happier times. From left, Buster, Paul, Alex, and Maggie.

From 1910, when the first Randolph Murdaugh opened a one-man law office, the family held justice over a five-county jurisdiction in a fist that became a death grip. Three generations of elected Murdaugh prosecutors always had the home-court advantage, with juries composed of family friends who usually owed them a favor. While putting rapists and murderers away, with dozens sent to the electric chair, the family also built an extraordinarily lucrative practice in personal-injury law. Thanks to quirky state venue rules, their firm regularly won millions in settlements from large companies. Famous for their courtroom theatrics, the Murdaughs generated some drama of their own over the years, narrowly skirting scandals involving moonshine and marijuana.

With the fourth and fifth generations of Murdaughs, however, the family’s historic legal powerhouse began to wobble. Alex took center stage with a big, flamboyant persona and an equally outsize opioid addiction. He had ratcheted up the family lifestyle to include multiple homes, private planes chartered for sporting events around the country, and expensive hunting trips abroad. Because of this luxurious life, which included a drug habit that cost tens of thousands per week, Alex’s expenses soon outstripped his generous income as a lawyer. Before long, the stream of settlement money flowing through the firm tempted him into a second career as an embezzler. Alex had found his true vocation, and he practiced it for years, eventually stealing more than $8 million.

Alex Murdaugh speaks with his legal team at a South Carolina courthouse before being sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and son.

His wife, Maggie, after decades of discontent with her small-town life and her unfaithful husband, began to consider divorce. Meanwhile, for years, she and Alex had looked on indulgently as their sons, Buster and Paul, cursed, fought, and drank their way through school. As teens, they relied on the family’s get-out-of-jail-free card to enable more serious antics, especially the hotheaded Paul.

Expelled from public school in eighth grade, Paul grew into a nasty drunk and drug user. He was an accident waiting to happen, and he didn’t wait long. At 19, the still under-age Paul drunkenly plowed his father’s boat into a bridge, killing one of his passengers. The crash marked the beginning of the end for the Murdaugh family.

With the fallout from the accident threatening to expose his financial crimes, Alex came up with a diversionary tactic that still beggars belief. He decided to kill Maggie and Paul. The deaths were sure to loose a flood of sympathy and recast him as victim rather than perpetrator. For a few months following Alex’s brutal shooting of his wife and son, the plan worked. Eventually, though, his embezzlement of his partners’ and clients’ funds came to light. He was fired from the family firm.

Buster Murdaugh speaks to the judge during his father’s trial.

His next scheme was to stage his own murder, which would allow Buster to claim Alex’s $10 million life-insurance policy. It was his final bit of fraud, resulting in a minor head wound and the start of his life behind bars.

Glatt takes us swiftly through the familiar twists and turns of the double-murder trial. By the end of the book, Alex is just a pathetic voice recorded in his phone calls from jail, often to Buster, the only survivor of the Murdaugh madness. And Buster doesn’t seem to have much time for chatting with his dad.

Robin Olson is a writer and painter. She lives in Vermont