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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.

Scientists and journalists are on the case in three noteworthy books about unsolved murders and other long-buried secrets.

“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.

“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.

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.

The history of science and medicine is full of people who have done horrific things—and the bestseller lists are equally full of proof that we’re fascinated by them. Are they simply bad apples? Or are there darker forces at work that turn scientists into monsters? Two new books examine these questions in very different ways.

In The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer, Dean Jobb dives into the life of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, aka the Lambeth Poisoner, who is believed to have killed at least 10 victims, including his own wife and the husband of one of his mistresses, in three different countries. Many of his victims were prostitutes or unmarried working-class women who sought abortions from the sympathetic Dr. Cream but received fatal doses of strychnine instead. Eventually he began stalking the music halls and bordellos of London in search of victims.

Cream was hardly a criminal genius. Tall with a distinctive squint and an equally distinguishing top hat, he had a bad habit of calling attention to his crimes. He nonetheless eluded Scotland Yard for months, primarily because of police indifference to the fate of “fallen women.” 

Raised in a wealthy but strict religious family, Cream seemed to be an archetypal Jekyll/Hyde character—Sunday School teacher and respected physician by day, poisoner by night. It would be easy to paint him as purely evil, but Jobb, a true crime reporter and teacher of creative nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, creates a nuanced portrait of Cream that’s much more chilling than Mr. Hyde. Yes, Cream was a remorseless killer, but he was also warped by Victorian hypocrisy, misogyny and classism—the same factors that allowed him to hide his crimes while hunting for more victims.

In The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science, Sam Kean takes a more systemic approach to examining why good doctors and scientists go bad. Kean looks at 12 case histories of people in these professions running off the rails: patients needlessly lobotomized, individuals and communities destroyed in the name of research, thousands of prisoners convicted on the basis of fraudulent forensic evidence and worse.

Sometimes the crime was committed by someone who just happened to be a scientist, such as a Harvard anatomist who found a grisly but scientifically sound method of dealing with an annoying creditor. Others, like Thomas Edison, were indifferent to the pain of others in the quest for scientific glory and wealth. In many cases, the crime was the result of the scientist’s fanatical devotion to finding “truth,” no matter the cost. But the worst crimes included here weren’t even recognized as such at the time because society accepted them as normal, even moral. That was how Henry Smeathman, an 18th-century natural historian and abolitionist, became a trader of enslaved people to fund his expeditions.

Kean is a podcaster with a gift for making science understandable. His writing style is conversational and witty—but he never forgets the real human costs of these crimes. The more powerful science becomes, the more subject it is to abuse, he says. And yet, Kean remains optimistic about the potential of science and medicine to do good, if scientists and nonscientists alike take action. He argues that diverse voices, enforced standards and critical appraisal of scientific assumptions would make crimes like the ones in The Icepick Surgeon more detectable and preventable—and science more trustworthy.

Two nonfiction books delve into nefarious crimes committed in the name of science and medicine.

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