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The Skeleton Crew

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This book is not to be confused with Skeleton Crew, Stephen King’s 1985 collection of macabre short fiction. No, Deborah Halber is a professional science writer. The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, Halber’s first book, is a true crime study, exploring how so-called cold cases are being resolved by amateur detectives.

Cold cases fall into two categories: individuals who simply disappear; and corpses found that are never identified. Astoundingly, there are forty thousand of these cases every year in this country alone. Why is that? Lack of physical evidence is one problem. Unlike those stalwart TV Detective Chief Inspectors Tom Barnaby and George Gently, law enforcement officials prefer to deal with newer cases that offer better odds for a solution. As the trail grows colder, the amateur sleuths enter the picture. Only they have the time and patience to probe the Internet for news that may connect human remains in one place with reports of someone missing in another. My big caution to the reader: page after page of The Skeleton Crew fairly reeks with ghastly descriptions of rotting corpses and speculative facial reconstructions, but mercifully, the book has no pictures. Otherwise, I’m not sure I could recommend it. The positive side is that occasional match-ups between dead bodies and missing persons do occur. Such match-ups bring a degree of comfort or at least closure for grieving friends and loved ones.

The sad truth is that the number of victims linked to perpetrators is statistically insignificant. What makes The Skeleton Crew unique and interesting is the due attention paid to the victims and their families. We learn that convoluted, unstable family relationships, divorce, and desertion can lead to murder. Many victims are runaways. Most, but not all, are women and girls. The cold cases resolved in this book are those where remains are identified, sometimes after a passage of decades.

I’m relieved to report that readers don’t have to endure the life stories of those who committed the murders lest they are glamorized. Identified, captured, and tried or not, serial killers tend to lead very unhappy lives. The real delights of The Skeleton Crew are the stories of the amateur sleuths. These obsessive individuals work in concert or sometimes in competition with each other. They also put up with hostility from local, state, and federal authorities who regard them as nothing but pests. Nonetheless, as the amateurs’ success rates rise, relations between amateurs and professionals are starting to thaw. The Skeleton Crew cold cases are very complicated with many players, requiring the reader to follow several investigations at once. Some cases are dragged out for the entire book. Of course, this is very much what conducting a real investigation must be like. So it’s not a criticism, but be prepared to keep up with hundreds of facts, back stories, and dead ends, all of which rarely lead to the miracle of solving the cold case. If you can do this kind of work, maybe you, too, may qualify as a cold case sleuth and join The Skeleton Crew.  – Dan Erwine

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