This is the story of a murder, of a single soft-nosed bullet that traveled upward through a man’s rib cage, piercing his lung and lodging in his neck, after being fired by an unknown assailant 92 years ago on a cold Los Angeles night.
The premise described above doesn’t come from Michael Connelly or James Ellroy; the murder victim was none other than William Desmond Taylor, the popular president of the Motion Picture Directors Association, who was gunned down in 1922 inside his bungalow. Though this legendary crime has remained unsolved for nearly a century, William Mann believes that he’s cracked the case. The truth will be revealed in Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood (Harper, Oct.), which Harper bills as “The Day of the Locust meets The Devil in the White City and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
The prime suspects are straight out of an Agatha Christie Golden Age mystery: a former child star, Mary Miles Minter; her mother, Charlotte Shelby; gangsters involved with a leading actress of the day, Charlie Chaplin’s costar Mabel Normand; and Taylor’s valet, who had a secret criminal past. There’s also a cover-up by the brilliant and ruthless Paramount founder, Adolph Zukor, who was locked in a struggle for control of the industry at the time of Taylor’s death. Mann states that the answer can be found amongst these players “and the solution depends upon understanding the intersecting story lines of all the characters involved.”
Mann referenced the case in 2001’s Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910–1969 (Viking), but learned afterward that he had some details of the murder wrong. A desire to correct his error coincided with his long-time interest in both Hollywood and mysteries. According to Mann, Tinseltown benefits from “a trove of records at the FBI, never before discovered, which really shed light on the mystery, and court records that I dug up at the National Archives.” In addition, Mann studied the original reporting on the case and witness statements.
Mann notes that “this was a case where the public all had different pet theories about who the culprit was. It became rather like the old game of Clue: Professor Plum did it in the drawing room with the revolver.” The book’s power derives not just from piecing together the clues and analyzing motives; Los Angeles is very present as well. Mann dubs it a “dangerous place where the powerful could still run afoul of the desperate.”
Mann is just one author aiming to satisfy readers’ appetites for true-crime books that are also whodunits. Some cases are well known: in June, Skyhorse will publish The Murder of Marilyn Monroe: Case Closed, by Jay Margolis and Richard Buskin. Others are obscure: the mystery of the 1938 murders of a California socialite and her beautiful sorority-president daughter in the desert near El Paso, Tex., is reportedly solved in Clint Richmond’s Fetch the Devil: The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America (UPNE/ForeEdge, June). It’s not surprising that publishers continue to perceive a market for unsolved mysteries; many true-crime readers came to the genre via classic mystery novels where the who, rather than the why or how, was the crucial question.
In November, Pegasus will release James Presley’s The Phantom Killer, Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror (see Why I Write, p. 18). The 1946 case, called the Moonlight Murders, is best known from the 1976 film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (a remake will be released later this year). The movie’s title was apt—the killer sent the community of Texarkana, which straddles the border between Texas and Arkansas, into a state of panic when he began targeting couples in lovers’ lanes. Later, he shot a man dead in his own living room. Presley gives the five murders the attention they deserve.
Presley wrote the book “as a corrective to the distortions and misinformation that had plagued the Texarkana serial murders since 1946.” He believes that he’s positively identified the killer as an ex-convict, and that under FBI guidelines, the case has been “cleared by exception” given overwhelming physical, eye-witness, circumstantial, and psychological evidence. Too often a killer becomes better known than his victims, and Presley views his work as “a memorial to them and their suffering.”
Presley’s interest stems from a personal connection to the case—his uncle, Bill Presley, was the local sheriff at the time of the murders. Before Sheriff Presley died, he shared secret details that corroborated “statements the major suspect’s girlfriend had given.” The author feels that the case, a cause célèbre at the time, has been overshadowed in the intervening decades by killers like the Son of Sam, Zodiac, Boston Strangler, and Green River Killer. He credits the Internet with “the Phantom’s second act on the national stage.”
The role of the Internet in identifying criminals, and the growing phenomenon of “Web sleuths,” is at the heart of Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases (Simon & Schuster, July). The book follows the story of Todd Matthews, a Tennessee factory worker, who, at age 17, became obsessed with a cold case involving a young woman who died decades before he was born. He had heard about “Tent Girl” from his then-girlfriend’s father, who’d stumbled on the body stuffed in a carnival tent by the side of a Kentucky road. Todd spent 10 years searching for her identity, but it wasn’t until the advent of Internet bulletin boards in the late 1990s that he spotted a notice posted by the sister of a woman who’d been missing since 1968. DNA and new forensic techniques identified Tent Girl as Barbara Ann Hackmann, whose husband, a carnival worker, had left their three children with relatives, claiming Barbara Ann had run off with another man. He became the prime suspect.
Matthews’s success as the first Web sleuth led to new digital databases devoted to unidentified victims. One of these, the Doe Network, attracts Web surfers who want to play private investigators. Halber’s book features a truly eccentric cast of armchair detectives: “a police dispatcher from the projects in Quincy, Mass., whose nephew had been brutally murdered; a one-time pig farm manager whose remarkable Internet research skills have made her indispensable to law enforcement; a craftswoman in South Carolina whose foster sister had mysteriously gone missing and turned up more than 25 years later as a skeleton with a bullet through her skull; and a woman in Mississippi, who managed to solve a case in which the only clue was a man’s head encased in a bucket of cement.”
Appropriately enough, Halber learned of her heroes via the Web. As she explains, “I found on Internet databases a small city’s worth of unidentified human remains.... By some estimates, there were tens of thousands of bodies, languishing in back rooms of morgues and buried in potters fields. It was one of saddest examples of national neglect I had ever come across. Then I found the Doe Network, and Todd Matthews, and I realized there were people out there who were bypassing law enforcement, taking matters into their own hands, trying to match the missing with the unidentified.” She was surprised that people would take on such a morbid, seemingly futile hobby, and that they were succeeding in solving cases.
That success can be directly attributed to the Internet, which made it possible for individuals to create databases of existing material on Jane and John Does from newspaper archives and other sources and gather it in one place. Halber observes that “unlike law enforcement, which tends to work in small fiefdoms dictated by local geography—counties, towns, cities—the Web sleuths collected data that spanned state lines, allowing them to notice that a body that turned up in one jurisdiction might actually be tied to a person who had gone missing in another jurisdiction, sometimes only across a county line.”
In the cases Halber chronicled, families had been searching for years and dealing with the living hell of not knowing what had become of their loved ones. The Web sleuths, “on top of their own job and family responsibilities, volunteer countless hours, poring over gruesome images and details, mired in other people’s misery and horror, with no guarantee that they will get anywhere, or if they do, that they will receive any recognition or reward beyond the knowledge that they helped provide closure for a stranger.”
In the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland Torso Murders, Authoritative Edition, Revised and Expanded (Kent State Univ., Sept.) is a thorough revision of James J. Badal’s seminal work on one of America’s most notorious unsolved serial killer cases. From 1934 to 1938, at least 13 people were decapitated, and many were also dismembered. Though Eliot Ness was Cleveland’s top cop at the time, the killer was never publicly identified. Badal verifies that Ness had a “secret suspect” and identifies him. The author believes that this new edition “comes as close as we are ever likely to come to establishing the guilt of Ness’s suspect.” (In 2013’s Hell’s Wasteland: The Pennsylvania Torso Murders, from Kennesaw State University Press, Badal established that someone else was responsible for similar killings committed around New Castle, Pa., at about the same time.) The author will continue his work with his next title, also from KSU Press, which looks into “the incredibly vicious unsolved murder of 16-year-old Beverly Jarosz in Garfield Heights in 1964—who was strangled and stabbed about 40 times.”
In Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans (Crown, Oct.), Gary Krist uses the search for a notorious serial killer to tell the story of the city’s “30-years war against itself, a conflict that ran roughly from 1890 to 1920, pitting the city’s wealthy ‘better half’ against its powerful and long-entrenched underworld of vice, corruption, and crime.” Just when the better half seems to have gained the advantage, “an anonymous ax murderer, who terrorized New Orleans for a year-and-a-half, dramatically upended the city’s sense of victory over its demons.” In keeping with the Big Easy’s musical heritage, Krist notes, the “Axman” had “identified himself as a devil from hell with a liking for the new jazz music, and once promised only to spare any household in which jazz is being played.”
Krist was intrigued by the effect of these crimes on the city’s population: “For 18 months, the city was riveted and appalled by this monster in its midst, who eventually became a symbol of all of the middle-class fears that were being evoked and exploited in the ongoing reform war. The Axman came to embody everything that was dangerous and uncontrollable in the city, and the fact that he was never caught made the whole affair that much more ominous.”
Clint Richmond’s Fetch the Devil focuses on solving “one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in Texas history.” The killing of Hazel and Nancy Frome came amid pervasive Nazi subversion in the American West and Southwest in the years leading up to WWII. While the Fromes were driving cross-country, they vanished; eyewitnesses reported seeing what may have been their car being chased by other vehicles. A week later, their corpses were found at the base of the Sierra Diablo Mountains. They had been tortured and each was shot in the head, execution-style. With evidence from recently declassified FBI files on prewar Nazi espionage on the U.S.-Mexico border, and the long-forgotten original case file in a courthouse archive in El Paso, Richmond concluded that the women were likely murdered in a bungled operation by an Axis spy ring. His research revealed that “the feds had withheld many tips that would have connected the Frome murders with the Nazi spy ring they were investigating.”
J. Dennis Robinson’s Mystery on the Isles of Shoals: Closing the Case on the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873 (Skyhorse, Nov.) wants to establish that the right man was hanged, despite a different conclusion in a fictionalized version of the case—Anita Shreve’s Weight of Water. Robinson is certain that the butchering of two women in 1873 “in the only occupied house on Smuttynose Island, 10 miles off the New England coast,” was committed by Louis Wagner, the handsome young fisherman who was later convicted. Despite evidence that the survivor of what was believed to be a robbery gone wrong cried out Wagner’s first name, modern armchair detectives believe that he was innocent, and that the surviving victim wielded the bloody axe herself. Robinson explores why Wagner’s guilt is still questioned, and he observes, “Sometimes the guy covered in blood, with method, means, and opportunity, really is the killer.”
In The Twelfth Victim: The Innocence of Caril Fugate in the Starkweather Murder Rampage (Addicus, May), attorneys Linda M. Battisti and John S. Berry Sr. revisit the notorious 1958 spree killings committed in Nebraska and Wyoming by Charles Starkweather. Fugate, his 14-year-old girlfriend, was convicted as an accessory and sentenced to life in prison, but the authors argue that she was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
One of the most anticipated fall titles is Looking for Madeleine by acclaimed investigative journalists Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. The book will be published in September by Hachette/Headline, though an American publisher has not yet been selected. The book examines the “British equivalent of America’s Lindbergh”—the 2007 disappearance of four-year-old Madeleine McCann from her bed in a Portuguese holiday resort. As in the JonBenét Ramsey case, the parents were named as suspects before being cleared. Is Madeleine still alive? Are her parents guilty? The authors—whose previous book, The Eleventh Day, was a Pulitzer finalist—promise answers.
It’s no coincidence that many forthcoming unsolved true-crime books feature a serial killer. Bob Kolker, the author of Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (HarperCollins), one of PW’s 10 Best Books of 2013, believes that fictional serial killers are the analogues in current American culture to older fantasy antiheroes like Dracula. However, he notes that “real-life serial killers are not nearly as charming as their fictional counterparts, and the resolutions to their stories can take years and even decades.”
That’s certainly the case in Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer (Canongate, June), by the late Swedish journalist Hannes Rastam. Rastam’s stranger-than-fiction tale reveals that Quick, who’d confessed to committing over 30 murders, didn’t commit any of them. In her foreword to the book (Rastam tragically died the day after completing his manuscript), reporter Elizabeth Day, who managed to reach Quick himself via Twitter, notes that the scandal behind Quick’s false confessions “reached the highest echelons of Swedish society,” and that many in those echelons “didn’t want to admit that something, somewhere had gone so terribly wrong.” According to Day, the upshot of Rastam’s revelations is that “there were murderers at loose who were never brought to justice for their crimes.” Readers will be dumbfounded that some still believe in Quick’s guilt, despite Rastam’s painstaking analysis of the so-called evidence against him.
In Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers (Skyhorse, Oct.), Scott Bonn explains why many ordinary readers can’t get enough of the gory details of these crimes. Bonn believes that serial killers have been “transformed into larger-than-life ‘celebrity monsters’ through the combined efforts of law enforcement authorities, the news and entertainment media, and the public. Exaggerated depictions of serial killers in the mass media have blurred fact and fiction. As a result, real-life killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and fictional ones like Hannibal Lecter have become interchangeable in the minds of the public.”
But why are these sadists, counterintuitively, so popular? Unlike authors who focus only on the killers, Bonn, who had access to incarcerated serial murderers, studies “the dark nature of society itself and its powerful appetite for the macabre.” He covers both mainstream individuals interested in the topic, and, on the fringes, fans, groupies, and collectors of serial killers’ original artwork, mementoes, and artifacts (including clothing, personal items and weapons). Bonn suggests that the stereotypical representation of these killers “as monsters by law enforcement authorities and the news media reduces public anxiety by clarifying moral boundaries and defining evil, while also establishing the serial killer as the ‘other’ in society—that is, as an aberration of nature that is separate and distinct from decent people.” Accepting this message at face value, according to Bonn, can be very comforting, as it suggests that, despite all of our failings, the rest of us are not so bad after all.
These titles are just the tip of the knife. Annie Cossins’s The Baby Farmers: A Chilling Tale of Missing Babies, Shameful Secrets and Murder in 19th Century Australia (Allen & Unwin, Aug.) shines a chilling light on Sarah and John Makin, who are linked to the deaths of 13 infants. The author describes this case as “the most unexplained, unexamined and unbelievable murders ever committed in the Australian colonies.” Cossins is now a law professor, but earlier in her life she was an actress and actually played the role of Sarah Makin in a television series, an experience that led her to set the record straight about the crimes.
Steve Shukis’s Poisoned: Chicago 1907, a Corrupt System, an Accused Killer, and the Crusade to Save Him (Titletown, Sept.) presents what the publisher bills as the “fascinating true story of a mysterious Bohemian fortune-teller charged with murdering a half-dozen people by slowly poisoning them with arsenic.” Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice by Kate Clark Flora (New Horizon, Sept.) details how cadaver dogs helped catch a serial killer in New Brunswick, Canada. R.J. Parker Publishing’s Serial Killers True Crime Anthology 2015, Vol. II is slated for December. And, of course, no year would be complete without a new theory about the identity of the father of all serial killers, Jack the Ripper; Mosaic Press’s The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper: As Revealed to Clanash Farjeon by Alan Scarfe (Oct.) focuses on Freud disciple Lyttleton Stewart Forbes Winslow as the legendary killer; there’s also The Strange Case of Dr. Doyle: A Journey Into Madness & Mayhem by Daniel and Eugene Friedman (Square One, Oct.).