The Blotter Presents 138: Atlanta's Missing And Murdered and The Kolker Interview

Plus a felonious-jackass roll call, Murder House Flip FOMO, and more

Once again, the book-review poll ends in a tie! Which means I’ve got [counts on fingers] three weeks to read American Sherlock AND Rap On Trial. Challenge accepted! See you back here April 30th at 11:57 PM ET! …Hee. Except: probably, but remember, paid subscribers get those reviews (and more!), so if you can manage it and you want to clap an eye on those extras, grab a sub today. — SDB

The Blotter Presents 138 is a quarantine-busting two hours! It wasn’t my intent to drop an ep that huge, but if your at-home-staying has reached the “FINE, I’ll clean the basement” stage, this is the episode for you. It’s also the episode for you if you 1) are also watching Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children on HBO and want to know if Toby Ball and I thought you should check it out (we did, but we had a few notes), or 2) would like to hear Kevin Smokler and Bob Kolker talk about Lost Girls, Kolker’s new book Hidden Valley Road, trusting filmmakers not to make your investigative report into “a musical or something,” “blessing[s] from the Pope” in the cover-blurb department, and more. (Bonus BTS bit from me about trying to nail down a Beverly Hills, 90210 book subtitle!)

At the same time that I’m reading the April bonus books, I’ll also be digging into Hidden Valley Road — and thanks to Ms. Winfrey, much of the country will be doing the same:

So excited for Kolker, and so glad we got to talk to him before he got too big ‘n’ famous, hee.

And there’s lots of links to pass the time in the episode show notes, so give it a listen today! — SDB

Quibi dissed Eve hardcore (yes, I’m the one who still says “dissed”; AMA) by not giving her Murder House Flip screeners. Apparently, this Apartment Therapy piece on the show gave my esteemed colleague FOMO, but I don’t know why; the headline notes that MHF “Fulfilled” Nicoletta Richardson’s “True Crime-Meets-HGTV Expectations,” but she doesn’t really explain how the almost parodic combination of HGTV and ID scratches both itches.

On the other hand, it met my expectations as well, and not in a good way; as I said on this week’s episode of Extra Hot Great, it’s a combination of the most tiresome filler and jacked-up process timelines of both types of show. As well, the first three episodes dwell (as it were) on a single property, so basically it’s a half-hour HGTV probably rejected, chopped into three repetitive and static segments. The app’s other crime-contiguous offerings include Chrissy’s Court (a fluffy People’s-Court-style seven minutes featuring Chrissy Teigen and her mom) and The Most Dangerous Game (that’s a Zodiac reference…and pretty much the last thing the show does that makes it worth my while, but I’ll spare you the get-on-with-it rant) (for now/once). Only Judge Chrissy is really worth checking out, so Eve, you dodged a bullet. Uh…as it were.

That said, this interview on Slate with MHF’s creator is worth a read; it gets pretty process-y in terms of the filming, and Star Price talks about the fine line between “respectfully interested” and “exploitatively nosy.” Whether it’s crossed, dear reader… — SDB

Are you saying to yourself, “Self, let’s hear from some true-crime buttholes”? Of course you’re not; you’ve got bigger things on your mind. But buttholes gonna butthole, even during The Year Of The COVID, so let’s do a quick rundown.

  • R. Kelly’s request to be released from jail: denied! [ABC7]

  • Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli: just wants to help fight coronavirus — as a free man! [Snopes]

  • National Enquirer turd/Weinstein stan Dylan Howard: out of work! [Variety]

  • Fyre-ball Billy McFarland: fundraising from the clink for a new project that connects families during the pandemic! [Oxygen]

  • Joe Exotic: revealed as a racist in lost footage! [TMZ]

Sarah and Eve: “Fuck all of you!” [every issue of Best Evidence]

…Heh/sigh. If it were even ten years ago, I’d bet you American dollars we’d see Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald on this list claiming that, as a physician, he should be paroled to let him pitch in on the COVID-fighting effort — but he’s in his late seventies now, and whatever else he is, he’s not an idiot. — SDB

Speaking of reading, here’s a book review of the Jameses’ The Man From The Train from the archives. With the recent muttering about MLB maybe trying to get the 2020 season going in Arizona, it seems like a good time to re-up the father of sabremetrics’ second true-crime effort. Years on, I can still summon up the hotel room where I read the bulk of this, and the lowboy I considered shoving up against the door.


The crime

"A hundred years ago, a traveling axe murderer horrified the nation, leaving a ghastly trail from Florida to Washington State and looping back again. He was a very clever fiend, and he'd worked out a method whereby he could murder perhaps a hundred people without being caught."

...Well, yes and no. Mostly the murderer horrified the parts of the nation in which he operated, one part at a time; some of his murders became national stories (the Villisca axe murders), but others were never connected to this one individual until now. And perhaps shouldn't be.

And he didn't leave a trail; this is part of Bill and Rachel James's point. The trail went to the train tracks, and stopped, for over a hundred years.

The story

I haven't tracked down the reference, but I feel certain that Bill James announced in Popular Crime -- which I also quite like -- that he had spotted a pattern in a certain handful of unsolved (or incorrectly solved) murders from around the turn of the last century, in which the obvious connection was that the perpetrator had been able to make a prompt exit from the town of the crime via a nearby train. The Man From The Train: The Solving Of A Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery is about those connected murders. James wrote it with research help from Rachel McCarthy James, his daughter, and I tore through the book in two days. It's quintessentially Jamesian work.

Mind you, that's...not always an unalloyed positive, but let's take the positives first. What I found so readable about The Man and about Popular Crime -- which I picked up again last night to find the reference I mentioned above, then started rereading in earnest, sucked in all over again -- is what I've always found so readable in James's work about baseball and statistics: its directness. His aim is to present, then contextualize, information, and he does this as if he's speaking directly to you. (I was pleased, at a keynote address he delivered at a conference a couple years back, to find that this isn't theoretical, and that his actual speaking directly to you is not in fact his reading stiffly from his notes.) I don't know that James would agree, but he's a top-notch writer because he doesn't seem to think of himself as a writer, but rather as a guy interested in certain topics who is obliged to use writing to share them. The straining for literaritude (and subsequent splattering on the pavement, nine times out of ten) you see in a lot of true-crime writing is therefore absent, but it isn't folksy instead.

It's also not too self-serious. At one point James turns to the reader after making a pun and says that he would apologize, but it's a pretty heavy topic we've got on our hands -- The Man murdered entire families with the blunt side of an axe, then "outraged" whatever girl children might have been part of these families -- and he's going to take a moment to lighten things before getting back into it. He also doesn't make a showy point of underlining the horrors he's describing and making sure the reader understands he's clutching his pearls. Of course he is. If he's right about the connections amongst these myriad crimes and the identity of The Man, The Man is responsible for over a hundred slayings (and several unjust convictions and executions/lynchings). There's no need to present bona fides of revulsion, but many authors in the genre feel like they must, and it's tiresome.

Best of all, you know how I like process, and the Jameses do really well walking the reader through their case, and all the related cases; jumping around in the timeline while explaining why they're doing so; and making you feel like you're solving along with them, to an extent. After a certain number of cases, you know what to look for in the crime scenes, because the parameters have been explained and repeated, and then the Jameses do a little "now, you may recall from the Monmouth chapter" or a "so, you're asking yourself, is this The Man or not?" It's a conversation, a shared project. I like that.

I'm not such a huge fan of James The Elder's occasional handwaving of facts that don't seem to jibe with what he's saying as "not a big deal," or pronouncements that we'll just have to trust him that X set of murders belongs with the rest of the group because he's lived with the files for years and he knows best. He has; he does; it's not a good look, as on p. 90: "If he was intent on murdering someone and couldn't find an axe, I don't think that would have stopped him from committing murder." I mean...I don't disagree. Murderers murder, they find a way. But announcing that a break from the pattern or m.o. you've so carefully established is not germane requires a little more than "look, trust me" in this context, and the tone is a problem. What I appreciate as James's efficiency as a writer can land as curt impatience with those too slow to keep up or who hang up his train of thought (so to speak) with questions, and some find it off-putting. Popular Crime had an entire section on his ideas for corrections reform that I thought was compelling, but was rendered in this occasional brooking-no-dissent way, and I recall Goodreadsers finding that off-putting. That too is quintessentially James; it's not in as much evidence here, I wouldn't say, but if you've struggled with that tone in the past, caveat lector.

On balance, though, it's a great read: fast; immersive not just in the creepiness and grue of the crimes (a creak in my hotel room while I was reading alone made me jump half a foot) but also in the time in which they occurred; long on detail, but not in a homework-y way. It's not a case that's well trodden, which helps, but the writing style kind of makes me want to see what these two would do with one that is -- Jack the Ripper, or Laurie Bembenek. I was sorry to get to the end. — SDB, 12/11/17

Thursday on Best Evidence: Longreads; the CEO of Wondery gets ouroborosed by the true-crime genre; and there’s a TV One true-crime series in its sixth season?

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