So, not much reading for pleasure has been done this past month, as it’s been the month of my (very hectic and stressful – oh God, the stress!) Annual Review at University. Now that has passed, for now, I’ve been indulging in a personal favourite of mine – true crime!

‘Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery’ by Robert Kolker is very much up my street, and yours if you happen to like true crime. It is marketed as:

“Award-winning investigative reporter Robert Kolker delivers a humanizing account of the true-life search for a serial killer still at large on Long Island and presents the first detailed look at the shadow world of online escorts, where making a living is easier than ever, and the dangers remain all too real. A triumph of reporting, a riveting narrative, and “a lashing critique of how society and the police let five young women down” (Dwight Garner, The New York Times), Lost Girls is a portrait of unsolved murders in an idyllic part of America, of the underside of the Internet, and of the secrets we keep without admitting to ourselves that we keep them.”

‘Lost Girls: An unsolved American mystery’ by Robert Kolker

So, how did I find it? First of all, it’s different from the other true crime books I’ve read previously. It is not filled with the nitty gritty details of every twist and turn of the investigation, or speculation over who could be the killer(s). Instead, ‘Lost Girls’ is about the women taken by the killer. All of whom were dismissed in some way or the other when the fact they were escorts reached the public. Kolker instead presents the women’s backstories, introduced their lives, families, loved ones and friends. Laid bare their daily struggles and victories. Going over their lives in such a sensitive way is what is truly surprising and welcome in this unusual true crime book.

‘Lost Girls’ is far from dry, and almost reads like a fictional thriller-mystery. Set in a quiet beach community off Ocean Parkway in Long Island, meeting with ‘Johns’ late at night, and the tense presence of police in the area, it very much sets the scene. After several mysterious disappearances and several bodies uncovered in a tiny area, the police investigation centred on the well to do gated community of Oak Beach. Oak Beach has more than its fair share of secrets and cover-ups, which Kolker cleverly details before getting into its more sinister side. This is riveting, as hard as that sounds. Each major player is depicted as roundly as the victims themselves. As the geography of the area plays a major part in the murders, Kolker takes pains to vividly describe it in detail.

This book is well organised, with each women being dedicated her own portion of the book, each of sharp focus. Clearly, Kolker was determined to provide a very full and rich context for each woman, show that she wasn’t “just an escort” and that – possibly the point he wanted most to drive home – her decision to escort was never really a choice in these cases. He more than succeeded. He also repeatedly shifted the focus onto the world of escorting, shedding the strongest of lights on its dangers, sadness, and inherent sexism. It’s all compulsively readable.

The pace does begin to plod during the book’s second half after the victims’ bodies have been recovered. Here there’s a lingering on the victims’ families and their various dramas, some of which, although understandable, are soap opera-ish and make for exasperating reading before long. Some of these sections come across as filler, though fortunately not all, so this misstep is minor.

Lost Girls deserves a space on the top tier, beside ‘Columbine’ and ‘People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman’. Like the authors of those true crime novels, Kolker was thorough, respectful, and thoughtful, right down to his double-meaning title choice.

Final verdict: Fans of true crime will be very pleased with this book, and the people-centric focus will interest those new to the genre.

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