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“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.

 Trailed

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.

 Rogues

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.
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“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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“I loved secrets, even terrible ones,” writes Erika Krouse in her debut memoir, Tell Me Everything: The Story of a Private Investigation. “Especially terrible ones. When people told me things, I felt happy. The more they didn’t want to tell me that secret, the happier I felt when they did.” When a lawyer unexpectedly offered the fiction writer a job as a PI in 2002, she found herself investigating members of a Colorado university football team who had raped their female classmates. Unbeknownst to the lawyer, Krouse had also experienced sexual abuse from the ages of 4 to 7 by a man she calls X. Krouse explores both the legal case and her own emotional minefield in compelling, precise prose.

For legal reasons, and to protect the victims, Krouse changes some identifying details about those involved with the case and never names the university, although a few well-placed clues allow readers to deduce the specifics. Thanks to Krouse’s sleuthing, one victim received a $2.5 million settlement in 2007 and another received $350,000. The football team, she discovered, had a history of institutionalized misogyny and had been using drugs, alcohol and sex as recruiting tools. After these revelations, the team’s coach was suspended and later fired.

Hear more from Erika Krouse, the writer who became a private investigator and helped crack a landmark sexual assault case.

With utmost care and consideration for the victims, some of whom chose not to come forward, Krouse gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the complications of pursuing a Title IX case. Her narrative voice is engaging, and she effortlessly relates legal complexities in succinct, easy-to-follow passages. As a result, learning how Krouse and her legal team patiently unraveled the scope of the university’s involvement reads like a detective novel. Particularly riveting are the scenes in which Krouse speaks with various witnesses, often in bars or restaurants, trying to parse out what happened on the night of that ill-fated party. Instead of fancy surveillance equipment, Krouse relies on the lure of free beer and nachos, noting, “Alcohol made football players arrogant enough to tell the truth; it made women sad and angry enough to trust me.”

Alongside the story of her investigative work, Krouse explores her personal life: falling in love with an acupuncturist, reflecting on her childhood and navigating difficult family relationships. Her mother refused to address Krouse’s sexual abuse even after Krouse was an adult, and their relationship remains a live grenade throughout the book.

Both the true crime and memoir components of Krouse’s book are extremely successful, and her reflections on the injured party’s difficult choice to make their pain public are crisp and on point. “Maybe I . . . was splashing around in other people’s pain just to avoid drowning in my own,” she writes. “Maybe I was only trying to help them because nobody helped me.” Tell Me Everything is a memorable, highly personal account of a landmark legal case, as well as a thoughtful examination of the long-lasting damage of sexual assault.

Erika Krouse’s memorable, highly personal account of a landmark Title IX case reads like a compelling detective novel.
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Edgar Smith is not one of the names that comes to mind when one thinks of storied American killers, but according to the superb crime writer and journalist Sarah Weinman, he was at one point “perhaps the most famous convict in America.” Convicted for the brutal 1957 murder of 15-year-old Vickie Zielinski in New Jersey, Smith spent years on death row claiming he was innocent. His story caught the eye of conservative millionaire William F. Buckley Jr., who befriended Smith and helped him publish his story in a bestselling book. After years of legal wrangling, Smith was released from prison and became a passionate advocate for prison reform.

But then? Smith was caught attempting to abduct a woman in California in 1976. After he stabbed and beat her, the woman managed to escape. He confessed to killing Zielinski while being tried for his second crime, and ultimately died in prison in 2017. Scoundrel is the electric story of a man who managed to fool everyone around him: his wife, his mother, the famous neoconservative who founded the National Review and even the legal system.

The most interesting detail Weinman uncovered during her research for Scoundrel is that Smith had an affair with his editor, Sophie Wilkins—or at least as much of an affair as one can have from the confines of prison. Weinman found a trove of correspondence from Smith to Wilkins, some of which are love letters and others of which are more sexually graphic. “Those long letters, exceeding twenty single-spaced pages, weren’t sent through the Trenton State prison system, lest snooping censors create problems and revoke the privileges of its increasingly famous Death House inmate,” Weinman writes. Instead, Smith gave the letters to his lawyers, who passed them along to Wilkins. Wilkins would later claim she was only using Smith’s affection to produce the best book possible, but the letters suggest a more complicated and sincere relationship between the pair.

Despite his crimes happening more than 60 years ago, Weinman paints a complete portrait of Smith in all his complexity, with an unsettling ending that left me breathless. A chilling and deeply satisfying read, Scoundrel injects life into a story nearly forgotten by time.

Scoundrel is the electric story of a killer who managed to fool everyone around him, as told by the superb crime writer Sarah Weinman.

Nowadays, encountering news stories about sexual crimes is a daily occurrence. But in the late 1970s, when the FBI noticed a marked uptick in reported sexual violence, such crimes were considered a strange new trend, which the agency decided they should address by educating all their agents.

However, as Ann Wolbert Burgess explains in her captivating and chilling A Killer by Design: Murderers, Mindhunters, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind, there was a major roadblock to the FBI’s mission. “None of the agents had the background or expertise to speak about issues of sexual assault, rape, sexual homicide, or victimology,” Burgess writes.

That’s where she came in. For several years, Burgess—a forensic and psychiatric nurse with a doctorate in nursing science, et al.—had worked on a major study of what was called “rape trauma syndrome.” When Roy Hazelwood, a new agent in the FBI’s nascent serial killer-focused Behavioral Science Unit, caught wind of her work, he asked her to share her methods for analyzing and finding predictive patterns among sexually violent crimes.

Burgess sees her ability to “ground an infinitely complex human trauma into quantifiable data and research” as a hallmark of her work, and she taught FBI agents how to apply her methods in order to establish a reliable foundation for their investigations. For starters, standardized questions for all suspects are key, as well as analyses of perpetrators’ childhood experiences and similarities across crime scenes.

Although the BSU toiled in underground offices without a dedicated staff or budget at first, as the unit employed Burgess’ methods, their successes grew. Delving into the minds of everyone from Son of Sam to the BTK strangler, they solved dozens of cases, eventually garnering press coverage—and subsequent respect via above-ground digs. Their work also sparked the popular fascination with profiling borne out in a seemingly never-ending stream of books, movies, TV shows and podcasts. In fact, Burgess inspired a character in the popular “Mindhunter” Netflix show, which is based on a book by her FBI colleague John Douglas.

With A Killer by Design, Burgess takes center stage at last, offering important, fascinating new context and details about the history of crime-solving in America. It’s an inspiring and meaningful story, too, with its up-close look at people who have dedicated their careers to catching murderers and pushing for justice. As Burgess writes, “My decades studying serial killers weren’t for the game of cat and mouse, nor because I found these killers entertaining. . . . For me, it’s always been about the victims.”

When the FBI noticed a marked uptick in sexual violence in the 1970s, they called on Ann Wolbert Burgess to teach them how to profile—and catch—serial killers.
Behind the Book by

My fascination with the story of The Wicked Boy began when I read a newspaper report from July 1895 about a horrific murder in East London. The body of a 37-year-old woman had been found rotting in the front bedroom of a small terraced house while her two sons, aged 12 and 13, played cards in a room downstairs.

When confronted by the police, the older boy, Robert, immediately confessed to having stabbed Emily Coombes to death 10 days earlier. He said that he and his brother, Nattie, had plotted together to kill her. Both were charged with murder and remanded in jail.

Intrigued by why the boys had killed their mother, I decided to seek out more information about the crime. There were scores of newspapers published in England in the mid-1890s, many of them digitized and easy to search, and their richly detailed reports helped me chart the movements of the brothers in the days before and after their mother’s death. Then I started to look further afield. 

1. THE FINAL TRANSCRIPT
Almost as soon as I began searching online, I found a digitized transcript of Robert’s trial for murder at the Old Bailey. (Nattie had been discharged so that he could testify against his brother.) The transcript gave me a wealth of leads: names of the boys’ neighbors, relatives, schoolteachers, employers; the pawnbrokers with whom they pledged goods; the owner of a coffeehouse at which they dined; the shopkeeper who sold Robert the murder weapon. It also supplied details of the mental instability in the family—Robert’s as well as his mother’s.

2. THE FOLDER OF EVIDENCE
At the National Archives in Kew, southwest London, I found transcripts of the witness statements and the documents submitted in evidence at the trial. Among them was a letter in which Robert tried to scam money from a cashier at the London docks; a letter in which he tried to persuade his father, who had sailed to New York, to send money home; and a letter from Emily Coombes to her husband, written on the day before her death. This last note gave me my first direct glimpse of the victim of the murder, not just as the object of her son’s violence but as a loving, protective, agitated woman.

3. THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
I visited the working-class East London street on which the family had lived. Their house had been demolished, but most of the buildings in the terrace were still standing. Directly opposite was the brick wall of a school playground, with the word “BOYS” inscribed by the entrance arch. Robert had graduated from this school just a few weeks before the murder. He had been a star pupil, a clever and musical boy much praised by his teachers, but after graduating he had faced a lifetime of grinding labor in a shipbuilding ironworks on the Thames. I walked from the schoolyard to the site of the shipyard by the docks.

4. THE PENNY DREADFULS
Some commentators argued that Robert had been inspired to murder by the “penny dreadful” stories that had been found in his house. I tracked down as many as I could of the titles identified in court, many of them reprints of American dime novels. It was astonishing to sit in the British Library reading the very stories that Robert had read, and to imagine the fantasies that they fed: of wealth and glory, adventure and escape.

5. THE GRAVESTONE
At the Old Bailey, Robert was found “guilty but insane” and sent indefinitely to an asylum for criminal lunatics. I learned from the asylum records that he had been discharged 17 years later, at the age of 30. At first, I could find no trace of his life after this, but eventually, on a website about Australian cemeteries, I came across a photograph of his gravestone in New South Wales. The stone bears a plaque inscribed with his name, his date of death and his military rank and number. By checking these against First World War records, I learned that he had served with honor at Gallipoli. 

My only clue to what became of Robert after the war was a phrase on the gravestone: “Always remembered by Harry Mulville & family.” I traced the Mulville family through the New South Wales telephone directory, and then traveled to Australia to meet Harry Mulville’s youngest daughter. Thanks to her, I was able to learn the ending of Robert Coombes’ story. Though he seems never to have spoken about the murder to those he knew in Australia, in 1930 he performed an act that could be understood both as an atonement and as a kind of explanation of his crime.

English writer and journalist Kate Summerscale, formerly the literary editor of the Daily Telegraph, transforms odd and fascinating history into thrilling, award-winning narratives, from the social timeline of marriage to gripping true-crime tales. In The Wicked Boy, Summerscale exhumes the details of a fascinating Victorian-era murder mystery. Essay text © 2016 Kate Summerscale.

This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.


It’s Private Eye July at BookPage! All month long, we’re celebrating the sinister side of fiction with the year’s best crime stories. Look for the Private Eye July magnifying glass for a daily dose of murder, espionage and all those creepy neighbors with even creepier secrets.

My fascination with the story of The Wicked Boy began when I read a newspaper report from July 1895 about a horrific murder in East London. The body of a 37-year-old woman had been found rotting in the front bedroom of a small terraced house while her two sons, aged 12 and 13, played cards in a room downstairs.
Behind the Book by

Tori Telfer reflects on the fine line between herself and the dazzling con artists she profiles in her raucous romp, Confident Women.


I spent most of 2019 perched on a stool in a coffee shop, “writing.” I was supposed to be writing a book about con women—con women in the court of Marie Antoinette and con women in Olympic-mad Beijing and con women who came down from Canada to wreak havoc on the tender hearts of Cleveland’s finest businessmen. But there were times when I clutched my almond croissant like a woman possessed and just sat there, staring into space, consumed by one burning question:

Have I ever been conned?

I had a mercenary reason for asking myself this question. I had been struggling with the introduction to my book, trying to cram every single thing there was to say about cons and women into a few punchy pages, and the resulting introduction read like a Google Drive document that was being edited by 10 people at once. I needed a better way in. I needed an anecdote—something to start the book off with a bang. And wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if the anecdote involved me being conned?

If I could just dredge up some suppressed memory about being cheated by a crook or swindled by a spiritualist, the introduction would practically write itself. Sure, I knew on an intellectual level that being conned was not something to wish for. The victims in my book were seriously damaged by their run-ins with con women. They were broke, despairing, ashamed, traumatized. Some of them were even dead. But I couldn’t help trawling through my memories anyway, searching for con artists at every turn, asking myself, Wait, was she a con artist? Was he?


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Tori Telfer’s Confident Women.


There was the roommate who lied to me about . . . well, everything. She told me, for example, that she’d been given the phone number of the lead singer from Dashboard Confessional while sunbathing on an abandoned beach.

There was the man who convinced me that he needed money for a tow truck to come and get his broken-down truck. He sat with me on the curb, chatting about his tattoos, as my boyfriend took $40 out of an ATM behind us. We were entirely convinced that he was going to come back in the morning and repay us. He was even in costume as a construction worker. It was as though we had attended a piece of interactive theater, not a petty fleecing.

And then there was the time I chatted with a known con artist on Facebook Messenger. I had been researching her cons but ultimately decided not to include her in my book after our interaction. She told me that Roman Polanski wanted to make a movie about her life. I decided to leave her story up to him.

But none of these interactions felt compelling enough to make it into my book. Instead of the stuff of great introductions, they felt like the stuff of . . . life. Who among us hasn’t been lied to on Facebook Messenger, or had trouble with a roommate, or given money to someone who may have been pulling the wool over our eyes? Instead, I found a fantastic article from the 1970s about a con artist named Barbara St. James who changed her hair color a lot and used her as my opening anecdote. But afterward I was left with all those small stories from my past—those microswindles, if you will—wondering what to do with them.

“The world of the microswindle is not as clear-cut as one might hope.”

As much as the microswindles irritated me, I had to admit that I was a bit of a microswindler myself. I have lied more times than I care to admit. (Ask me about the time I made up the story of my first kiss.) In living rooms and on Facebook Messenger and while sitting on plenty of curbs, I have pretended to be a little bit different than the person I truly am. It didn’t seem fair, then, to interpret the interactions I’d had with microswindlers as examples of Me Being Good (or at least naive) and Other People Being Bad. I started thinking of them less as moral and more as transactional. They were a sort of payment, I thought—payment for the privilege of trusting other people.

If I am going to trust most of the people I interact with, then yes, every now and then I will have to fork over $40 for something shady or listen to an anecdote about Dashboard Confessional or Roman Polanski that probably isn’t true. And the payment isn’t entirely one-sided, either. I only chatted with the con artist on Facebook Messenger because I was thinking about writing about her—thinking about absorbing her life story into my book, like some sort of soul-sucking spirit. And as far as my old roommate and my friend on the curb? I have used them as anecdotes in conversation again and again. I am using them now. The world of the microswindle is not as clear-cut as one might hope.

The macroswindles that made it into my book were more clear-cut. After opening my book with Barbara St. James, I lined up the rest of my chapters—the woman from Beijing, the woman from Versailles, the woman from Canada and all the rest—and the resulting cast of characters was big, fascinating, compelling. Their tales were twisted and bizarre and sometimes confusing, but there was often some clarifying moment: a trial, say, or a prison sentence. Their stories were special, for lack of a better word—special enough to be worthy of a book. But their stories were just bigger, not other. They were still on the same spectrum as the woman on Facebook, as the guy on the curb, as my old roommate, as me.

 

Author headshot © Charlie Kirchen

Tori Telfer reflects on the fine line between herself and the dazzling con artists she profiles in her raucous romp, Confident Women.

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