March 13, 2014 6:09 AM EDT

To do fly-on-the-wall journalism, a writer must first get inside the room. That’s where Joe McGinniss’s sporadic mastery began. As a young man, he could charm his way past any door and earn the trust of any subject. Only later, when they read the gripping results, did his sources realize that no revealing quote or telling foible escaped his notice. He wrote for readers, not sources, and readers thanked him by buying tons of his books.

The Selling of the President was his first–a classic account from inside Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign spin machine. An even bigger blockbuster was 1983’s Fatal Vision. In this gem of the true-crime genre, McGinniss, who died on March 10 at 71, so thoroughly seduced and then exposed convicted killer Jeffrey MacDonald that his methods prompted a national debate on the New Journalism. After a jury could not decide a lawsuit filed by the outraged MacDonald, McGinniss agreed to a hefty settlement. In retrospect, this was the crest of the wave for him and his brand of reporting. His success and his methods put all juicy subjects on notice: reporters are the enemy. Barred from inner sanctums, McGinniss fell back on imagination to pump up a biography of Edward Kennedy, while his book on Sarah Palin was stitched mainly from clippings and gossip. Ringer of high notes, he was as well sounder of the death knell for his own techniques.

–DAVID VON DREHLE

This appears in the March 24, 2014 issue of TIME.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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