In her fascinating and unsettling book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases, science journalist Deborah Halber thaws out some of the coldest cases in America's cold case locker: the unidentified bodies that have stacked up in city morgues and county coroners' storage facilities, neglected by law enforcement officials who are pressured to solve more recent cases.
Halber's book documents the macabre efforts of the motley gang of amateur detectives who have taken to the Internet to match cold-case missing persons records with reports of found human remains. Involving herself in the search (Halber became captivated by the Lady of the Dunes, a skeleton found in 1974 on the Provincetown MA shore), the author profiles a half-dozen of these detectives, who search for the lost identities of remains called The Tent Girl, Jane Arroyo Grande Doe, and the Head in the Bucket. These searchers are ordinary people—people with families and day jobs—who volunteer extraordinary amounts of time and energy to bring comfort to grieving families by locating their missing loved ones. Some of these detectives are competitively challenged by the puzzle while others are driven by a very personal need to know, having experienced the loss of a loved one themselves. They are, Halber says, the digital-age equivalent of the neighborhood watch, a caring if sometimes obsessive group of vigilantes working on behalf of the rest of us.
An equally interesting angle of the book is Halber's description of the development of the websites where these amateur Watsons and Marples congregate, along with their successes, failures, and inevitable disagreements. She also reports on the intermittent but increasingly important efforts of government and local law enforcement agencies to integrate various forensic data bases (NCIC, NamUs) and provide wider access to the records of unidentified remains.
Halber's descriptive talent shows itself clearly ("Livingston, Tennessee, is plopped like the yolk of a sunny-side-up egg in a valley midway between...") and her gritty noir voice is a strong match for the noir tale she tells: "An unidentified corpse is the Blanche DuBois of the forensic world." The book is diligently detailed and researched, although long and marginally relevant strings of detail often threaten to pull the reader away from the storyline. (Do we really need to know the minutiae of Lauren Haddock's animal-rescue addiction or the intricacies of Quackie's murder?)
As well, the book's anecdotal structure is likely to prove a challenge, especially because Halber often embeds one vignette inside another inside another without leaving any time-or-place cues or creating connecting bridges that might help the reader follow the story. As a deeply interested reader, my own navigational efforts would have been assisted with an annotated cast of characters, a list of acronyms, and that most basic of all reader-friendly tools, an index. Casual readers and those who don't like hop-skip-and-jump narrative are likely to give up the information chase before they get very far into the book.
But persistent readers will find that their efforts to follow Halber's story are richly rewarded. The Skeleton Crew is an important book about a dedicated and little-known crew of amateur sleuths who are—for deeply-held and often contradictory reasons of their own—intent on naming the unnamed. It is also a very human book, reminding us that these skeletal remains are loved by someone, someplace. As Tent Girl's sister Rosemary says at the end of the book, "Everybody needs to go home. Everybody needs to go home."
Read an excerpt from this book.
Deborah Halber is a Boston-based journalist and member of the National Associate of Science Writers. She has chronicled breakthroughs in neuroscience, molecular biology, energy, and technology at MIT and Tufts. Visit her website.
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