Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lost Girls: A Book Review

In the next iteration of my recent nonfiction reads, let me present Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker.

A tale of tragedy, vice, and murder, Lost Girls was both fascinating and frustrating. Even though the title directly tells you that the mystery is unsolved, there was a part of me that was confident that, given the evidence, I could figure out whodunit. But this is no clean Agatha Christie. It has no hero. No single villain. And no end.

Lost Girls is the story of the Long Island Serial Killer and five of his victims. Well, four depending on what you believe. Each of the girls is a sex worker who advertised through Craigslist, but while other authors might be tempted to emphasize the danger and seediness of these girl's worlds, Kolker does an excellent job of humanizing the girls. He starts out with a vision of their childhood and home life, the factors that lead to their career decisions. Their likes, their dislikes. Their dreams and ambitions and disappointments.

Kolker starts the book with an eerie prologue that sets the mood. A young woman, Shannan Gilbert, shows up at a gated community on Long Island. She runs from door to door, screaming that someone is trying to kill her. No one helps. The police take over forty-five minutes to show up. She disappears.

Alternating between factual evidence and anecdotal stories from family and friends, Kolker paints a broad picture. The tapestry is woven from the threads of these girls lives. From the reticence of the police and the community to care about "escorts." From the conflicting emotions of those left behind. This (sometimes) controlled chaos definitely makes for an interesting narrative.

Lost Girls does on occasion become confusing in its detail. With the vast cast of characters, the five main girls, and their alternative work names, keeping track of who's who can be a bit daunting. That's the difficulty of translating real life to a story. It's not always pretty.

Even with the inevitable disappoint, Lost Girls is a riveting story about the humanity behind the victims. It doesn't glorify the villain. It doesn't dismiss the victims. It strikes that precarious balance between voyeurism and information. Inextricably drawn into the mystery, the reader is forced to confront the fact that not all people are just good or just evil. That fate is never something one deserves. And most importantly, that not all stories have an ending.

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