Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber -- Web Sleuths and Cold Cases

Photo: The hardcover's hardcover, from this website at Simon and Schuster.

Though a little dry at times, The Skeleton Crew is a work unlike anything I've read before: a nonfiction piece about web sleuths, people who match missing people with unidentified bodies, thereby giving closure to the families of the dead and, to boot, solving a cold case.

That such people exist is a surprise, and yet not, to me at the same time.  Mostly the web detectives are obsessed people with a personal void to fill.  Some are siblings of someone murdered, or someone missing.  Todd Matthews, the man the book revolves around the most, had siblings die very young--just a few years old--and he thinks he's perhaps trying to resurrect them, in a way.  He doesn't really know.

But he solved the now-infamous case of Tent Girl.  In this book you'll also read about the still-unsolved case of the Lady of the Dunes, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  Another case, of a young redhead killed in the desert outside of Las Vegas, haunts me still.

And you might be surprised to know that as many as 40,000--and perhaps more--unidentified bodies take up space right now in coroner's offices throughout the U.S.  More find their way into the unidentified statistics every day.

And they're not all homeless, addicts or prostitutes, either.

One article I read today--similar to this book but not in any way connected to it--concerned a woman who lived under a ton of aliases for over thirty years before she committed suicide in Texas.  Who was she, really?  Nobody knows--including her husband.  She'd covered her tracks that well.  Her latest driver's license was of a name she'd stolen off of an 18-month old's gravestone in Idaho.

Then there was the story of a woman who was kidnapped, sold to a man who molested her and married her (yes).  She's not dead, of course, but she tells the story of a woman, from her exact same situation, who was killed by the man she'd had to marry.  Who was this other girl?  Nobody knows.  She'd just been taken off the street, sold to some guy, and re-named.  And now she's dead, and nobody knows who she is--not even the guy who kidnapped her.

So who's The Lady in the Dunes?  The woman who had her head bashed in and her hands chopped off to hinder her identification?  Nobody knows.  And there's thousands of people like her, unidentified, unknown, unburied and ungrieved-for, all over the country.

Fascinating, in a sad, morbid, I-can't-believe-it kind of way.

And definitely worth reading, if you can stomach it.

It's written by Deborah Halber in a literary-mystery kind of way, weaving interconnected stories, flashing back, coming back around again.  You have to pay attention, but it's easy to do if you care enough.  I found myself Googling some of the nicknames and some of the victims, and reading a few of the websites mentioned in the book.

I even gave a passing thought to trying it myself.  Me, the web sleuth.  But I won't. 

I know better.  It's too depressing and too addicting, and I'd never recover.

The writer in me sees a good novel in here somewhere.  I'll add it to the list of manuscripts-to-come for now.  I've got to return the book to the library, but I'll look to buy it soon, so I can own it when I start to write my web-sleuthing novel.

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