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Dr. Alexa Hagerty, an associate fellow at the University of Cambridge and an anthropologist with a Ph.D. from Stanford, can read bones. In Still Life With Bones: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains, Hagerty explores the close connection between bones and words. Like words, bones can be articulated (arranged into a coherent form, such as a skeleton) and become articulate (capable of clear expression). Using sight, touch, smell and even sound, Hagerty can interpret the stories that bones conceal. For example, she can tell by touch if a bone’s fracture took place before, during or after its owner’s death. She can piece together the shattered remnants of a little girl’s skull to reveal the bullet hole in the middle of her forehead. She can even determine how a person’s occupation shaped their bones. A dairy worker might have compression fractures in their neck from leaning their face against a cow’s flank. A grooved incisor might once have held a tailor’s pins.

Still Life With Bones is in part a memoir of how Hagerty gained this extraordinary expertise, recounting the physically and emotionally draining work of meticulously searching for bones and identifying the dead and how they died. It sounds bleak, but there is also pleasure in these pages: the camaraderie of co-workers, the friendly competition among fellow students and the joy when a skeleton is reunited with the community who believed they would never see their beloved again. 

However, Still Life With Bones is more than just a memoir. Woven throughout these memories and lyrical reflections on bones, anthropology and storytelling are the actual horrors that some particular bones reveal. Hagerty did her fieldwork in the mass graves of Guatemala and Argentina; her subjects are the victims of genocidal wars committed by dictators against these countries’ citizens. Her colleagues are forensic anthropologists committed to reclaiming the dead and returning them to their grieving families at great personal risk and cost. Every beautifully written page of this extraordinary book affirms the individuality of each victim, and honors the living who serve them and their survivors.

Anthropologist Alexa Hagerty's extraordinary memoir pays tribute to the victims of genocide in South America, whose bones Hagerty returned to their grieving families.

The latest book by journalist Alex Mar (Witches of America) is a valuable contribution to the true crime genre. Taking its title from a verse in the Gospel of Matthew, Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy begins with a heinous murder but then follows the difficult, inspiring path of forgiveness and redemption traveled by those whose lives were forever altered by that crime.

On May 14, 1985, 15-year-old Paula Cooper and three teenage friends entered the Gary, Indiana, home of Ruth Pelke, a widowed Bible teacher and grandmother approaching her 79th birthday. What began as a hastily conceived plan to snatch cash and jewelry ended with Ruth dead on her living room floor, the victim of an attack so ferocious, Mar writes, that it’s almost unimaginable. 

The brutal death of an elderly white woman at the hands of four Black girls in Gary, a city many white residents had fled after the election of its first Black mayor in 1967, sparked public outrage and made prosecutor Jack Crawford’s decision to seek the death penalty an easy one. After pleading guilty without a plea bargain, Paula was sentenced to death, making her, at the time, the youngest person ever to receive the death sentence in modern American legal history and the first female juvenile ever to receive that penalty.

At that point, Paula’s story took an unexpected turn. Sitting in his crane one night at the steel plant where he’d worked for many years, Ruth’s grandson, Bill Pelke, sensed in a moment of profound personal crisis that his grandmother was calling on him to forgive her killer. But Bill went far beyond that single generous act of compassion to embrace an entire life of activism against the death penalty, in solidarity with others who had lost family members to violence. In tandem with Bill’s journey—one that took him across the United States and as far away as the Vatican—Mar describes the efforts of the lawyers who fought tirelessly for the abolition of the death penalty for juveniles.

The details of Paula and Bill’s relationship and how their lives unfolded in the more than four decades after Ruth’s murder are readily available on the internet, but readers should resist the urge to seek them out and instead rely on Mar’s intimate and highly sympathetic account. Anyone moved by Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, will find Mar’s book a compelling companion piece on the issue of crime and punishment in America. It’s a story that beautifully marries tragedy and hope, illuminating some of the worst and best of which human beings are capable.

Alex Mar’s Seventy Times Seven begins with a heinous murder but then follows the inspiring path of redemption traveled by those whose lives were forever altered by that crime.

In September of 1740, a British man-of-war called the Wager sailed from Portsmouth, England, as one of six warships in a squadron bound for South America. Their mission: to harass Spanish naval forces while seeking out a treasure-laden galleon on its way from Mexico to the Philippines during the colorfully named War of Jenkins’ Ear. The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder is bestselling author David Grann’s vivid account of that ill-fated expedition, revealing humanity at its best and worst, from heroism to cannibalism.

Grann focuses his attention on three of the vessel’s crew members: Captain David Cheap, who sailed as the first lieutenant of another ship and inherited his first command of a man-of-war after the death of the Wager’s previous captain; John Bulkeley, the ship’s gunner and a deeply religious man who kept a meticulous journal of the disastrous voyage; and John Byron, an ambitious 16-year-old midshipman whose grandson, Lord Byron, would one day incorporate elements of the Wager’s tragic story into his epic poem “Don Juan.”

David Grann reveals why a disastrous shipwreck from the 1740s struck him as a parable for our own turbulent times.

Informed by the extensive documentary record and enriched by the experience of his own three-week visit to the site where the Wager, a former merchant vessel and therefore the “bastard of the fleet,” ran aground in one of the violent storms endemic to the area near Patagonia, Grann tells this story with a keen eye for arresting (and at times terrifying) details. Thanks to his sure-handed ability to create scenes with novelistic immediacy, it’s easy to feel the mounting desperation of the seamen as their numbers shrank in the face of relentless winter weather, disease and starvation. And yet, despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges, which pummeled the sailors as regularly as the towering waves that pounded their ill-equipped ship, a small remnant of the original crew was able to endure.

After 33 survivors improbably arrived in South America in two makeshift vessels, and then later sailed home to England, the British Admiralty felt bound to convene a court martial to address allegations of mutiny and the claim that Captain Cheap had murdered a member of the crew in cold blood. Grann writes that he has “tried to present all sides, leaving it to you to render the ultimate verdict—history’s judgment.” However, the trial’s outcome is less important than the way it demonstrates how “empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell,” as Grann writes. “But just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.” His thrilling book is an admirable example of how that veil of ignorance can be pierced

David Grann’s narrative nonfiction masterpiece about an 18th-century man-of-war that ran aground in South America reveals humanity at its best and worst, from heroism to cannibalism.

Our top 10 books of May 2023

Must-reads for May include the latest from bestselling historian David Grann and romance superstar Emily Henry, plus the long-awaited second novel from Abraham Verghese.

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Must-reads for May include the latest from bestselling historian David Grann and romance superstar Emily Henry, plus the long-awaited second novel from Abraham Verghese.
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In 1740, a ship called the Wager departed from England to pursue a Spanish galleon filled with treasure. However, before the crew could accomplish their mission, they wrecked on an island off the coast of Patagonia. What happened next—from the men’s harrowing survival to the unexpected fallout once they returned to England—is expertly told by National Book Award finalist and Edgar Award winner David Grann in The Wager.

Your previous books have dealt with a range of historical eras and subjects. What first sparked your curiosity about this story of a British naval expedition in the mid-18th century?
I came across an 18th-century eyewitness account of the expedition by John Byron, who had been a 16-year-old midshipman on the Wager when the voyage began. Though the account was written in archaic English, and the lettering was faded and hard to decipher, it instantly sparked my curiosity. Here was one of the most extraordinary sagas I had ever heard of: a crew battling typhoons, tidal waves and scurvy; a shipwreck on a desolate island off the Chilean coast of Patagonia, where the castaways slowly descended into a real-life Lord of the Flies, with warring factions, murders, mutiny and cannibalism.

And that was only part of the saga. Byron and several other survivors, after completing extraordinary castaway voyages, made it back to England. (By then, Byron was 22.) They were summoned to face a court-martial for their alleged misdeeds and feared they would be hanged. In the hopes of saving their own lives, they all offered their own wildly conflicting versions of what had happened, and this unleashed another kind of war: a war over the truth. There were competing narratives, planted disinformation and allegations of “fake news.” So even though the story took place in the 1740s, it struck me as a parable for our own turbulent times. And if all this wasn’t enough to spark my curiosity, John Byron became the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, whose work was influenced by what he called “my grand-dad’s ‘Narrative.’”

Read our starred review of ‘The Wager’ by David Grann.

Your descriptions of what it was like to be on a British man-of-war or stranded on a desolate island are so specific and vivid. What kind of research enabled you to write with this level of detail and intimacy?
I was amazed that, even after more than two and half centuries had passed, there was still a trove of firsthand documents about the calamitous expedition. They included not only washed-out logbooks but also moldering correspondence, diaries and muster books. Many of these records had somehow survived tempests, cannon battles and shipwreck. I was also able to draw on court-martial transcripts, Admiralty reports, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, sea ballads and drawings made by members of the expedition. All of these sources of information, as well as the vivid sea narratives published by many of the survivors, hopefully help to bring this gripping history to life.

You personally took a journey to the site of the shipwreck that stranded the crew of the Wager off the coast of South America. How did that experience enhance the telling of this story?
After a couple of years of doing the kind of research most suited to my physical abilities—that is, combing through archives—I feared that I could never fully grasp what the castaways had experienced unless I visited the place now known as Wager Island. At Chiloé, an island off the coast of Chile, I hired a captain with a small boat to guide me to Wager Island, which is about 350 miles to the south and situated in the Gulf of Sorrows—or, as some prefer to call it, the Gulf of Pain. After several days of winding through the sheltered channels of Patagonia, we entered the open Pacific Ocean, where I had at least a glimpse of the terrifying seas that had wrecked the Wager. We were caught in a storm, engulfed by mountainous waves, and our boat was tossed about so violently that I had to hunker down on the floor; otherwise, I might have been thrown and broken a limb. Thankfully, the captain was extremely capable and led us safely to Wager Island. We anchored for the night and at dawn climbed in an inflatable boat and went ashore.

The island remains a place of wild desolation—mountainous, rain-drenched, freezing, wind-swept and utterly barren. Unlike the castaways, who had only scraps of clothing, I was bundled up in a winter coat with gloves and a wool hat. Yet I was still bone cold. Near the area where the castaways had built their encampment, we found some stalks of celery, like the kind they had eaten. But there was virtually no other nourishment. At last, I grasped why one British officer had called the island a place where “the soul of man dies in him.”

“Even though the story took place in the 1740s, it struck me as a parable for our own turbulent times.”

Book jacket image for The Wager by David Grann

Many of the scenes in The Wager have a novelistic immediacy. What are some of the techniques you used to bring those scenes to life while hewing to the facts as you discovered them?
The most important technique, I think, was simply the narrative structure. The book shifts among the competing perspectives of three people onboard the Wager: the captain, David Cheap; the gunner, John Bulkeley; and the midshipman, John Byron. Because of all the underlying research materials, I tried my best to let the reader see and feel history unfolding through their eyes.

Speaking of novels, you note that the story of the Wager influenced well-known writers such as Herman Melville and Patrick O’Brian. How did that play out?
Occasionally, a great teller of sea tales would be drawn to the saga of the Wager. In his 1850 novel White-Jacket, Melville notes that the “remarkable and most interesting narratives” of the castaways’ suffering make for fine reading on “a boisterous March night, with the casement rattling in your ear, and the chimney-stacks blowing down upon the pavement, bubbling with rain-drops.” In 1959, O’Brian published The Unknown Shore, a novel inspired by the Wager disaster, which provided a template for his subsequent masterful series set during the Napoleonic Wars. And it wasn’t only novelists who studied the reports of the expedition; so did philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, as well as the scientist Charles Darwin.

In an author’s note, you write, “I’ve tried to present all sides, leaving it to you to render the ultimate verdict—history’s judgment.” In the chapters that follow, you remain scrupulous about allowing readers to decide for themselves what happened on this ill-fated mission. What made you decide to take that approach?
I thought it was the most honest and transparent way of documenting the murky truth. Each survivor from the expedition was shading or eliding the facts, hoping to emerge as the hero of the story and avoid being hanged. Whereas one officer might only admit that he had “proceeded to extremities,” another witness would disclose, in his own account, how that officer had actually shot a seaman right in the head. By considering each competing account, readers can hopefully discern how the historical record was being manipulated, and see the past in a fresh light.

“At last, I grasped why one British officer had called the island a place where ‘the soul of man dies in him.’”

You describe great heroism and real depravity, along with a range of other character traits, exhibited by the crew of the Wager. What does this story tell us about how human beings succeed or fail in the face of extreme hardship?
The story illuminates the contradictory impulses of people under duress. When the castaways worked together, they improved their chances of survival, building an outpost on the island with shelters and irrigation systems. But many of the men eventually succumbed to their own desperate self-interest and became pitted viciously against one another, which only fueled their destruction. The unpredictable nature of humans, including the good and the bad, was what surprised me most while researching and writing this book.

Near the end of the book, you write, “Empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell, but just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.” What does the story of the Wager say specifically about empires and colonialism?
The history of the Wager underscores the ravaging nature of imperialism and colonialism. British authorities seemed to recognize that the scandalous Wager affair threatened to undercut the central claim used to justify the ruthless expansion of the empire: that its civilization was somehow superior. The Wager’s officers and crew, these supposed apostles of the Enlightenment, had descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity, behaving more like brutes than gentlemen. Some of those in power thus tried to put forward their own versions of events and rewrite history. 

I think the Wager affair also shows how some people’s stories are erased from the history books. Unlike many of the survivors, one man named John Duck, who was a free Black seaman on the Wager, could never share his testimony. After enduring the shipwreck and a long castaway voyage, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. There is no record of his fate. His story is one of the many that can never be told.

“The Wager’s officers and crew, these supposed apostles of the Enlightenment, had descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity, behaving more like brutes than gentlemen.”

Congratulations on the release of Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of your book Killers of the Flower Moon this May. There are reports that Scorsese has also optioned The Wager for a movie. Can you discuss that?
Scorsese and his team worked with such care in adapting Killers of the Flower Moon; they worked closely with members of the Osage Nation to faithfully render this important part of history. And so I’m honored that Scorsese has decided to team up again with Leonardo DiCaprio to develop the story of The Wager

What can you tell us about your next project?
Well, I am looking now for a new book subject, so please send any ideas!

Headshot of David Grann by Michael Lionstar

In the bestselling author’s latest narrative nonfiction masterpiece, he revives an 18th-century tale of shipwreck, mutiny, murder and “fake news.”
Review by

“What an amazing world we live in today,” Laura Baanstra said. She was speaking at a 2018 press conference to announce the scientific process that had been used to solve the 1987 murders of her brother and his girlfriend. The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder details this brutal crime, the failed efforts to solve it and how its eventual unraveling led to the first genetic genealogy murder trial. Fans of Michelle McNamara’s acclaimed I’ll Be Gone in the Dark should clear their schedules, because Edward Humes’ riveting account is nearly impossible to put down.

Pulitzer Prize winner Humes is no stranger to true crime writing. His 16 books include Mississippi Mud: Southern Justice and the Dixie Mafia and Burned: A Story of Murder and the Crime That Wasn’t. In The Forever Witness, he takes on the murders of 20-year-old Jay Cook and 18-year-old Tanya Van Cuylenborg, who set out by van from Victoria Island, Canada, to Seattle, Washington, to pick up a furnace for Jay’s father. Baanstra vividly remembers waving goodbye to her brother as he drove away in the family van for what was meant to be a quick overnight trip. Instead, Tanya’s body was dumped alongside a lonely road in Washington, Jay’s body was tossed over a bridge, and the van was abandoned. There were no eyewitnesses, no way of knowing what happened and little physical evidence, except for semen and a palm print on one of the van’s rear doors.

Hume’s account brings the young victims alive: Tanya, a photography buff planning to head to Europe as an au pair, and Jay, a kindhearted soul toying with becoming a marine biologist. Their families’ ongoing anguish is palpable, and details of the police investigation offer sharp reminders of how difficult such cases were to solve before the advent of technology such as cell phones and surveillance cameras, not to mention widespread DNA processing. 

Deputy Sheriff James Scharf had been working the graveyard shift in Snohomish County, Washington, when he got an alert to be on the lookout for the missing Canadian couple. Decades later, after becoming a cold case investigator, he would take the case to CeCe Moore, a self-taught genetic genealogist featured on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” Her amazing detective work—done in just two hours from her couch—led the authorities to William Earl Talbott II, a truck driver with no criminal convictions or known connection to the victims. Along the way, Hume explains the advent of DNA technology and databases in highly readable terms and examines the continuing debate about their use.

With over 30 years separating the crime from the arrest and trial, Hume does an exceptional job of navigating the vast time frame and re-creating the victims’ last journey. The results are heartbreaking as well as heart pounding. The Forever Witness has earned a well-deserved place among top-notch true crime reads.

Fans of Michelle McNamara’s acclaimed I’ll Be Gone in the Dark should clear their schedules, because Edward Humes’ The Forever Witness is nearly impossible to put down.
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True-crime books are frequently framed as guilty pleasures. Often sensational or even lurid, they feed our inner rubberneckers. But in the hands of a tenacious reporter, true crime can also expose devastating truths about human nature.

 We Carry Their Bones

Book jacket for We Carry Their Bones by Erin Kimmerle

We Carry Their Bones is Erin Kimmerle’s firsthand account of the discovery, exhumation and identification of 51 bodies buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. Truthfully, it is obscene to call Dozier a school. The inspiration for Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, Dozier was a prison where boys and young men were exploited, abused and often left to die from their injuries, beginning in 1900 and lasting until its closure in 2011. Kimmerle, a professor of forensic anthropology, led the team of volunteers and students who combed through layers of obstinate Florida clay to find and reclaim these lost boys, despite fierce opposition from townspeople and politicians.

Kimmerle’s commitment to finding the truth was grounded in her identity as a scientist. She didn’t fit facts to a predetermined answer but allowed the facts to lead her. Her dedication to clarity is reflected in her writing style as well. Without ever losing the thread of her story, Kimmerle outlines precisely, patiently and clearly each step of her task—including dealing with court appearances, bureaucratic battles and hostile town officials, as well as the myriad engineering and scientific difficulties she faced.

But We Carry Their Bones is not just a procedural: Kimmerle’s account of how her investigation unfolded also illuminates why it was so important. Unearthing these boys’ bodies likewise unearthed Dozier’s history, forcing onlookers everywhere to confront the racism and classism that sanctioned the crimes Dozier employees committed against so many young people. And most of all, restoring the boys’ names and returning their remains to their families brought both healing to the survivors and a measure of justice to the dead, demonstrating that something like peace is possible if amends are sincerely made.


Book jacket for Trailed by Kathryn Miles

In 1996, Julianne Williams and Laura Winans, two young women deeply in love, were murdered while backpacking in Shenandoah National Park. Kathryn Miles, a journalist and science writer, learned about their murder several years later while teaching at Unity College, where Laura had been a popular student. An enthusiastic backpacker herself, Miles was fascinated by the case and set out to write an article about the double murder. Instead, she ended up writing her fifth book, Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders.

Reading Trailed is like taking an interesting and often treacherous hike with a friend who is not afraid to explore the side trails. The main trail in the book is, of course, the story of Julianne and Laura, their deaths and the investigation that followed. But as Miles became more immersed in their story, she discovered other trails that looped back to Julianne and Laura: similar murders in and around the National Park System, especially of young women, members of LGBTQ communities and people of color; the lack of law enforcement resources allocated to park rangers; the many flaws in the initial investigation of Julianne’s and Laura’s murders that eventually led to the prosecution and persecution of a man who was probably innocent; and the community of cold case investigators and exoneration attorneys who helped Miles hunt for the real killer.

Like Kimmerle, Miles uses a true-crime story to shed light on society’s ills. Miles believes that Laura and Julianne weren’t murder victims who happened to be lesbians; they were murder victims because they were lesbians. Similarly, the flawed investigation shows the disastrous impact that confirmation bias can have on an innocent man—while letting the guilty man remain free. Meticulously honest and lyrically written, Trailed is an elegy to two young women and an indictment of the system that failed them.


Book jacket for Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe

In Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks, a collection of 12 articles previously published in The New Yorker, author and journalist Patrick Radden Keefe undertakes a different kind of sleuthing. There is no single crime that unites these pieces; for that matter, not every piece concerns a crime. The article on Anthony Bourdain, for example, is remarkably crime-free, if you discount his use of illegal drugs. Instead, Keefe focuses on “rogues”—not the jolly scallywags that the word often evokes but rebels, outliers, rule-breakers and operators who recognize no boundaries between themselves and the objects of their obsessions.

Keefe introduces readers to a notable rogues’ gallery, including a woman who must spend her life in hiding after informing on her mobster brother, an assistant professor who went on a shooting spree after being denied tenure, an IT guy in a Swiss bank who spilled the beans on hundreds of tax evaders and a lawyer who defends only death penalty cases. “Buried Secrets,” which details the struggle between an honest Guinean president and an unscrupulous Israeli diamond merchant over the world’s richest iron ore deposit, could easily have come straight out of a John le Carré novel. “The Avenger,” on the other hand, is a heartbreaking account of a man’s search for his brother’s murderer, the Lockerbie bomber.

Keefe has written several lengthy investigative books, including Empire of Pain, the comprehensive story of the Sackler family’s complicity in the opioid crisis. By contrast, he is working within the confines of 10,000-word articles in Rogues, so there is little room for self-reflection or digression. Instead, he makes full use of journalistic tools for fact-finding: keen observation, meticulous research and insightful interviews with the rogues, their associates and their victims. As a result, each essay is a taut, highly honed yet powerful reflection on the creative and corrosive effects of obsession.

Read more: Patrick Radden Keefe narrates the audiobook for ‘Rogues.’

Scientists and journalists are on the case in three noteworthy books about unsolved murders and other long-buried secrets.
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A scream in the night. A tangle of clues. Befuddled police being led by the nose as a sharp-eyed and unlikely detective examines the evidence. The drawing room denouement. All these are, of course, well-known tropes of the classic murder mystery—a genre made famous in part by the queen of the sleuthing story herself, Agatha Christie.

Christie’s works are so engrossing, and enduring, because they manage to tread that thin line where the cozy mystery and the high-stakes whodunit meet. While readers are wrapped up in the fantasy of an English country home or hamlet, the imminent danger is truly spine-tingling. Somewhat less examined, however, are Christie’s reputation as a meticulous researcher of forensics, a field that was newly developing in the early 20th century, and her medical and pharmacological background. A perfectionist who volunteered as a nurse and pharmacist during World War I, Christie was businesslike about blood and gore, more than aware of the effects of certain chemicals on the body and keenly curious about the new scientific methods being used to investigate real-life murders. Her appetite for the crossroads of science and crime was so great, in fact, that she co-founded the Detection Club, a social club of crime writers who gathered for supper and lively discussions on murder.

In The Science of Murder: The Forensics of Agatha Christie, Carla Valentine, a longtime mortician, curator of a museum of Victorian pathology and voracious Christie reader, expertly moves through the study of fingerprints, toxicology, ballistics, blood spatter and wounds. (A memorable example: The practice of “gloving” involves the autopsist wearing the skin of the deceased’s hand like a glove in order to collect fingerprints.) Christie ignited Valentine’s own curiosity about the forensic sciences, and with the enthusiasm of the true fan, Valentine illuminates Christie’s meticulous genius by dissecting some of her most famous fictional murders and illustrating how both the crime and the solution are supported by science. It’s an engrossing read for any Christie lover, or simply any true-crime obsessive. However, a strong stomach is recommended; Valentine, like Christie, has no qualms about gore.

The best murder is the well-researched murder. Happy reading.

Of all the ways there are to kill a person, poison is the one most inextricably associated with Christie. Dispatching over 30 of her victims in this way, Christie was well versed in toxins from her wartime days in a pharmacy. In fact, she wielded her toxic substances with such descriptive accuracy that her novels have been used to detect symptoms of poisoning in real murder attempts. Author and toxicologist Neil Bradbury pays homage to this fact in his book A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Used Them by opening three of his chapters with excerpts from Christie’s novels. All together, this is a book that Christie herself would have found excellent fireside reading material, as Bradbury devotes a chapter each to 11 major poisons used throughout history, including real-life murder cases in which they were used and, sometimes gruesomely, how they work on a molecular level to kill their victims.

Bradbury’s poisons run the gamut from the unexpected (insulin) to the gothically romantic (belladonna and wolfsbane). There’s even a section on polonium, the radioactive poison carrying a very famous victim count of one. Far from being dry molecular science, A Taste for Poison makes the reader horrifyingly aware of the devastating effects these substances have on the body’from corroding their organs to interrupting their essential electrical impulses to death. Yet it is with an excitement and love for his subject matter that Bradbury discusses these baneful materials, frequently reminding us that they are themselves blameless and often used in smaller doses to heal.

Christie’s murder mysteries were so steeped in science and so brilliantly complex that some think her novels were used as manuals to carry out attempts at the perfect murder. (Note: The would-be criminal masterminds failed in every known case.) Both Bradbury and Valentine seem to nod at this with their own warnings to readers who might use the knowledge their books impart to nefarious purposes. Forensic science will catch you, warns Valentine. Bradbury absolves himself in the appendix with a note informing us that his book is educational in nature and strictly not for the encouragement of murder. However, as Christie knew, the best murder is the well-researched murder. Happy reading.

Poison, fingerprints and toxicology—oh my! Carla Valentine and Neil Bradbury reveal how murderers have wielded chemistry and biology.
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Why are some people drawn to darkness? It’s understandable why some people seek it out as entertainment; to some, grisly murder is no more real than a sweet romance or an exciting adventure. But what about the people who choose to interact with darkness as part of their livelihoods? What makes someone say, “Serial killers—I want to hunt them down for a living”?

The best explanation readers might get is in Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases by Paul Holes, a retired detective from Contra Costa County in California. The region is where Laci Peterson was murdered, where Jaycee Dugard was held in captivity and where the Golden State Killer terrorized communities for decades. Holes spent his entire career in the county, with a particular focus on cold cases, and he devoted 24 years to investigating and ultimately finding the Golden State Killer.

Paul Holes, the cold case investigator who found the Golden State Killer, reveals the personal toll of his onerous career.

Holes’ memoir, co-written with journalist Robin Gaby Fisher, unpacks one man’s bruised brain. Unmasked is more about Holes’ mental health journey than other “how I caught the killer” tales in the true crime genre (although, of course, there is some of that, too). Holes’ blessing and curse was being gifted at a career that required him to think like a murderer, torturer, kidnapper or rapist. His book looks at what staring into that darkness does to a husband and father.

Unmasked is not for squeamish readers; investigations into many, many murders and rapes are described in detail. Additionally, Holes’ honesty about how police use macabre jokes and gallows humor to cope with their difficult jobs may disturb some readers.

But for readers who would like to see a different side of the true crime genre—the lifelong impact that catching twisted individuals has on one man—Unmasked is a must-read.

Retired cold case investigator Paul Holes’ memoir looks at what catching murderers, kidnappers and rapists does to a husband and father.
Interview by

At this moment in our collective obsession with true crime, we have a pretty good idea of what compels audiences to look into the darkest parts of human nature. Some people like to feel as though they’re contributing to a real-life whodunit. Some people want to feel the victory of seeing the bad guys punished. And some people, frankly, might just enjoy the morbidity.

Less certain, however, is what compels a key character of every true-crime tale: the investigator. What motivates someone who can’t just turn off the podcast or change the channel? What drives someone to make their entire career about investigating children’s deaths, women’s rapes or the crimes of people who are severely mentally ill? Paul Holes, a former cold case investigator for Contra Costa County in California, tries to explain in his memoir, Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases.

Holes is best known for devoting years of his life to catching the serial killer and rapist known as the Golden State Killer, but he hadn’t planned on writing a memoir about that experience. ‘My initial intention was to write a book like [an] encyclopedia of the Golden State Killer investigation,’ he explains by phone. But his agent, as well as his co-author, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robin Gaby Fisher, saw potential in adding more of Holes’ life story to the book. When Fisher interviewed Holes about his experiences, she found the other cases he’d worked on—such as Laci Peterson’s murder and Jaycee Dugard’s kidnapping—just as impactful.

Read our review of ‘Unmasked’ by Paul Holes.

Most importantly, though, Fisher picked up on “this undercurrent that I have—that most people in this field have—in terms of the trauma of having to work these cases,” Holes explains. “So she was trying to draw that out of me. And then when we finally got a publisher involved, the publisher said, ‘We need more Paul.'”

But providing “more Paul”—especially opening up about his traumatic experiences hunting rapists and murderers for 27 years—didn’t come easily to Holes. He had spent decades compartmentalizing painful memories about the worst things humans are capable of and, somewhat understandably, developed a mistrust of people.

However, Holes now realizes that he may not have been as good at compartmentalizing as he originally thought. His obsessive nature made him a dogged investigator of cold cases, but he wouldn’t have won any awards for being an attentive husband or present parent, both because of the urgent demands of his work and because of how its lingering effects spilled over into his personal life. In this regard, Unmasked depicts an aspect of working in law enforcement that surpasses the reductive binaries that have calcified around discussions of police in recent years. Addressing mental health issues in law enforcement is a murky area and is often handled within the profession with machismo and gallows humor. Because of this, Holes didn’t exactly leap at the chance to address his own mental health for most of his career.

And yet he became an author who writes on the very first page of his memoir, “I’ve looked at a woman, and rather than seeing the beauty of the female body, I dissected it, layer by layer, as if she were on the autopsy table. I have visualized dead women during intimate moments and I shut down.” Readers will know straight away the unsettling mental glue traps that lie ahead in Unmasked.

“Law enforcement has one of the highest divorce rates, and you can see why.”

But Holes’ candor about his work, and his eventual diagnosis of and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, provide helpful context for some of the personal casualties of his former profession. “Law enforcement has one of the highest divorce rates, and you can see why,” Holes says. “A lot of it is just the cynicism that develops in officers as they interact with the public in usually bad situations. . . . They bring that home. You know, I brought that home. And that does impact relationships.”

Unmasked book jacket by Paul Holes

Fisher interviewed Holes’ ex-wife and his current wife to incorporate their perspectives into Unmasked as well, and a legal review was conducted about cases covered in the memoir. “But nothing in the book was passed by anybody for preapproval,” Holes says. “What I put in there, the intention was to be as authentic as possible.”

In addition to Holes’ mental and emotional evolution, the memoir’s other throughline is tracking down the Golden State Killer—at first known as the East Area Rapist and the Original Nightstalker, until those two criminals were discovered to be the same person. Holes sought the Golden State Killer for 24 years with many twists, turns and false starts along the way. Law enforcement agencies from several California counties eventually tied the crimes to a former police officer named Joseph DeAngelo, thanks to the work of Holes and the late crime journalist Michelle McNamara (whose posthumous book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark details her experience trying to solve the Golden State Killer case). When DeAngelo was finally caught in 2018, he turned out to be living a fairly mundane life in a suburban neighborhood.

“There are real people whose lives have been lost, whose families have been impacted. And the professionals that are working these cases are also impacted.”

The details of Holes’ investigative work will fascinate any “Dateline” viewer or “Serial” listener; the book is practically a love letter to forensic DNA technology. But it’s the psychological component of Unmasked that is most compelling. Holes writes both chillingly and movingly about how tracking the Golden State Killer for so many years forced him to become very familiar with the killer’s mindset. Why did he rape some victims with a certain pattern of behavior? Why did he kill certain victims but not others? Why did he sometimes cry after committing his crimes or whimper for his “Mommy”?

These are unnerving questions to explore, even for a professional. “I felt as if I’d come to know him well enough to get in his head when I needed to,” Holes writes. “Sometimes it worried me how easy it was for me to feel what I thought he was feeling. . . . As even-keeled as I was, there were times when I was shaken by the darkness I’d invited myself into.”

Many readers will be eager to venture into that darkness with Holes, but he cautions them to tread lightly. “I want the true-crime fans to make sure that people understand that true crime is real crime,” he says. “There are real people whose lives have been lost, whose families have been impacted. And the professionals that are working these cases are also impacted.”

Headshot photo of Paul Holes © Steve Babuljak

The cold case investigator who found the Golden State Killer reveals the personal toll of his onerous career.
Interview by

“My favorite book growing up was Harriet the Spy,” Erika Krouse says, speaking by phone from her home in Colorado. “It’s funny because that’s what I ended up doing. [Harriet] wanted to be a writer, and she wanted to be a spy, and I did too.”

In 2002, years after Krouse’s Harriet the Spy phase, she had a chance encounter with a corporate lawyer in a bookstore. At the time, she was a 33-year-old fiction writer working a series of temp jobs, but there was something about her face that had always made people, including this lawyer, confess their innermost secrets to her. After experiencing this phenomenon for himself, the attorney offered Krouse a job as a private investigator, and she accepted. As she writes in Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation, “I wanted to help people and find things out, not necessarily in that order.”

Read our starred review of ‘Tell Me Everything’ by Erika Krouse.

That moment in the bookstore launched Krouse’s five-year investigative career, which included work on a landmark Title IX case involving college football players and recruits who raped fellow students at a party. For legal reasons, Krouse changed their names in the book. “I was committed to keeping the survivors safe,” she explains, “but the funny thing is, I also had to disguise the perpetrators, even though they didn’t deserve it, because some of that could have splashed back at the survivors.” The only concrete details she provides are that, at the time of the case, she was living “in the Front Range foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, in a small city that hosted a university and a swarm of tech startups.” It’s enough information for readers to connect the dots with a quick internet search.

“It’s the most famous case that no one’s ever heard of,” Krouse says. “There have been whole books about Title IX sexual assault that don’t mention this case, which is amazing to me because it was the first college case like this.” Krouse’s sleuthing helped reveal that the football team had used alcohol and sex as recruiting tools. The school eventually reached a settlement in 2007, with one victim receiving $2.5 million and another receiving $350,000. 

At the time, Krouse didn’t fully appreciate the enormity of her involvement. “I’ve been thinking about this recently,” she says. “How many times in your life do you get an opportunity to save someone when they need it or work on something that’s important? That’s not ordinary life, right? Ordinary life—you’re just trying to pay the bills and get groceries and get here and get there. So when these opportunities do come up, it is actually an extraordinary circumstance. And a lucky one. A very, very lucky one.”

“How many times in your life do you get an opportunity to save someone when they need it?”

Throughout the memoir, Krouse also writes about her own childhood experiences of sexual abuse by a man she calls X. “I would have preferred to use his identity,” she says, “but in some ways, it was freeing not to—in that, this is a person who doesn’t even get to have a name.” Another benefit of this approach was that she didn’t have to address any of the psychological factors that may have contributed to his crimes. “I could just focus on the functionality of this person, which is that he was a perpetrator,” she says, “and not have to spend a lot of time humanizing someone who dehumanized me.”

At first, Krouse didn’t plan to address her own victimization in the book. “I generally don’t talk about my history, even with friends,” she says. She didn’t even discuss it while working on the sexual assault case. But as Tell Me Everything began to take shape, she decided, “I’m writing about all of these very brave women. For me not to even talk about my own past would be cowardly.”

Krouse knew her personal history would make investigating a sexual assault case tricky. “In some ways, I think I might have been able to be more strategic had I had more distance from the topic of sexual violence,” she says. “But in other ways, I think I was able to understand the people I was talking to on a deeper level. I don’t know what the balance is.”

“I think there’s some strength to planting your flag in the sand and saying, ‘This is me, and here I am. Deal with it.’”

Since she had no prior detective experience, Krouse learned on the job. Luckily, she says, fiction writers are uniquely qualified to be PIs. “We love the narrative. And we think, ‘Oh, wow. That moment back when they were 4 years old contributed to this completely unrelated thing.’ We like the web, and the way we figure out the next clue, so to speak, is never in a linear way. It’s always roundabout.”

Krouse’s chops as a writer, plus her talent for making strangers spill their guts, gave her an edge, but there was still plenty of trial and error. She readily admits, with a laugh, that as an Aries, her modus operandi tends to be “ready, fire, aim.” But this approach worked. “I don’t think there’s a way to prep in advance because so much is fluid,” she says. “I definitely had no idea what I was doing, and that feeling turned out to be an asset because we were in new legal territory. Nobody had done a case like this, ever.”

Krouse says she never imagined that she’d write a book about sexual assault until suddenly, she was doing it. The process has been healing—“but not in a warm bath and candles kind of way,” she says. “I think there’s some strength to planting your flag in the sand and saying, ‘This is me, and here I am. Deal with it.’”

Headshot of Erika Krouse courtesy of the author

Meet the fiction writer who unexpectedly became a private investigator and helped crack a landmark sexual assault case.

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