“An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere” by Mikita Brottman

“For as long as I can remember, certain kinds of mysteries have enthralled me, especially those that contain an element of the uncanny—an odd coincidence; a mysterious stranger whose presence can’t be explained; an element of missing time; a prophetic dream the night before. To me, these wonders are dropped stitches in the universe, windows left uncovered for a moment, permitting us a quick glimpse into the unknowable.”

So writes Mikita Brottman in this fascinating chronicle of her growing obsession with a death that took place in the building she calls home, the Belvedere in Baltimore. A former hotel, which opened for business in 1903, the Belvedere was converted to condos in the early 1990s. By the time Brottman moved in, it was a place of “shabby grandeur,” with worn carpeting in the hallways and elevators that regularly broke down.

About a year after taking up residence in the downtown landmark, Brottman notices “Missing” posters posted around the neighborhood. Rey O. Rivera, age 32, 6’5″, brown hair, brown eyes. Eight days after his initial disappearance, Rivera’s body is found at the Belvedere, inside an empty room that used to house the building’s swimming pool back in its hotel days. He had apparently leapt off the top of the Belvedere and plunged through the roof of the annex, where his body had lain undiscovered for over a week. Out walking her dog, Brottman sees police swarming the building; later, from her apartment window, she has “an almost perfect view of cops climbing around on the annex roof,” and she even visits the room after everyone has left: “the carpet is stained almost black and scattered with what look like grains of rice, which, when I get down on the floor to study them more closely, turn out to be dried insect larvae.”

An Unexplained Death chronicles Brottman’s effort to find out what happened to Rivera. Was it suicide, or murder? Rivera had been working for a company called Agora that many of the people she talks to seem to consider somewhat sinister. He and his wife had been planning to move to California and everything seemed to be going well for them, so why would he kill himself? Brottman also reports on the many suicides and deaths that have taken place at the Belvedere over the years, along with the riddle of suicide itself. (This is the kind of book which matter-of-factly serves up sentences like, “Full urban mummification is not as common as you might think.”) You have to be willing to follow Brottman through her digressions, as this is not a linear true-crime tale. She even turns her gaze toward herself, and her lifelong conviction that she’s somehow invisible, forgettable.

I thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns of her amateur investigation, and while anybody hoping that she will somehow come up with a definitive solution to the mystery may be left disappointed, I found the conclusions she does reach at the book’s end to be well-reasoned and utterly plausible. “What makes a death mysterious?” she muses. “What happened to Rey Rivera transpires every day. People die alone; their bodies are undiscovered for days. It happens everywhere… Nobody feels compelled to solve the puzzle.” Readers can feel lucky that Brottman took a crack at this one.

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” by Michelle McNamara

“We always catch the dumb ones,” cops like to say. They could tick off ninety-nine out of a hundred boxes with these kinds of arrests. That one unchecked box though. It could vex you into early death.

I bought my copy of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer at a March event in San Francisco featuring the late Michelle McNamara’s husband, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. I had become intrigued by the case several years ago when McNamara wrote a piece about the man previously known as “EAR/ONS” (East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker—McNamara was marketing-savvy enough to know that a catchy name is essential in generating interest in a cold case) for Los Angeles magazine. The article featured an email sign-up form at the end, promising to keep readers updated on new developments. I submitted my address, looking forward to finding out more about the hunt for a man who had committed heinous crimes not far from where I live, terrorizing this area long before I moved to California.

Sadly, McNamara died before the killer was caught, and before she finished her book. Oswalt gave the researchers she had been working with access to her voluminous files and notes, and they completed her work. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is both a testament to her skill as a writer and her colleagues’ determination; there are notes in the book indicating when the duo, Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen, are working from notes, early drafts of her Los Angeles article, or interview transcripts.

So this is not the book McNamara would have released into the world had she lived, but we’re lucky to have this version of it, because it’s an instant classic in the true-crime genre. There are plenty of thoughtful passages where you can tell how immersed she became in the case, like this one, where she tries to truly understand the man she’s been tracking for so long: “Violent fantasy advances to mental rehearsal. He memorizes a script and refines methods. He’s the maltreated hero in the story. Staring up at him anguished-eyed is a rotating cast of terrified faces. His distorted belief system operates around a central, vampiric tenet: his feeling of inadequacy is vanquished when he exerts complete power over a victim, when his actions elicit in her an expression of helplessness; it’s a look he recognizes, and hates, in himself.”

I will admit that I was kind of scared to read the book because I’m a little bit of a true-crime wimp (at least I can reassure myself that fictional murders are simply the product of some writer’s imagination), but once the Golden State Killer was caught, I immediately picked it up, figuring that it would be less creepy once he was no longer on the loose. To be honest, I’m glad I waited, because it was fascinating to read it in light of what we now know about James DeAngelo, the man investigators are convinced is the culprit. “If we could just submit the killer’s actual genetic material… to one of these [DNA] databases, the odds are great that we would find a second or third cousin and that person would lead investigators to the killer’s identity.” Bingo.

For armchair crime buffs, it’s perhaps a little disappointing that DNA ultimately brought down the killer instead of the obsessive sleuthing of both professionals like ace investigator Paul Holes and enthusiastic amateurs like McNamara and Haynes. Known online as “The Kid,” Haynes compiled a 118-page document “with some two thousand men’s names and their information, including dates of birth, address histories, criminal records, and even photos where available.” We now know that DeAngelo’s name was almost certainly not among them. And yet, reading this book after DeAngelo’s capture shows how correct some of the hunches were. Holes told McNamara that he felt the killer may have attended California State University, Sacramento; that turned out to be right, since news stories following his arrest have revealed that he graduated from that institution with a criminal justice degree.

Why did his killing spree come to an abrupt end? “After May 4, 1986, you disappear,” writes McNamara. “Some think you died. Or went to prison. Not me. I think you bailed when the world began to change… memories fade. Paper decays. But technology improves. You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.” On April 24, 2018, it finally happened, exactly as McNamara predicted it would: “The tables have been turned. Virtual windows are opening all around you. You, the master watcher, are an aging, lumbering target in their crosshairs… Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”

“The Man from the Train” by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the TrainIf you wanted to be a serial killer, one of the best times to practice your dark art would have been in the very early part of the 20th century. Most small towns didn’t have police forces. There were no wire services, so if a bunch of people were murdered in Iowa, chances are that the news would never reach Oregon. And, of course, there were no crime labs or DNA testing.

However, there were plenty of trains, making it easy to travel swiftly and anonymously from one place to another. In The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery, famed baseball statistician Bill James and his daughter, researcher Rachel McCarthy James, claim that they’ve discovered the identity of one of the most prolific serial murderers of all time, with a body count of 100+ victims. The reason he escaped notice until now? Basically, no one had bothered connecting the dots of a whole bunch of very old unsolved crimes. These cases were not just cold, they were freezing.

The most famous mystery which James describes at length is the Villisca, Iowa, ax murders, which have been discussed in several other books, movies and online true-crime forums. The crime took place in 1912, but you can still tour the murder house or even spend the night there (no thanks!). James argues persuasively that he has solved the Villisca case, putting forth a suspect (he’s named toward the end of the book, not that it matters a whole lot; he’s probably been dead for a century). How did he figure it out? Basically, by comparing the hallmarks of the Villisca killer to many, many other crimes with a similar M.O.: the killer always took out entire families; he used the blunt side of an ax to slaughter his victims; the crimes took place around midnight; he covered the faces of the corpses; there was almost always a prepubescent girl, and there was evidence (mentioned in newspapers, albeit couched in plenty of euphemisms) that he had masturbated at the scene of the crime; entry and exit through windows, with doors left jammed; etc. Most important, however, was proximity to railroad tracks, which allowed this very cautious killer to make a quick escape as soon as he was finished.

While the Villisca case and other family ax murders in that same general time frame went off without a hitch (meaning that the killer got away, and in many cases, an innocent suspect was executed or lynched for the crime), James figures that as with any other art, practice makes perfect. He asks McCarthy James if she can discover the earliest possible crime with the killer’s hallmarks, and incredibly, she manages to do so. That time, he still escaped, but the police also pretty much knew who he was, and named him. It’s an amazing feat of research.

The book is interesting, but it does get repetitive, since it describes really horrible crimes in detail, chapter after chapter. James’ folksy style of writing helps leaven it a bit (a typical example: “No matter who puts on a Christmas party, they can always find somebody to play Santa Claus. No matter who is murdered, there is always someone who can be cast into the role of First Suspect.”). It is also fascinating to find out what police work was like in that era. Curious neighbors traipsed through crime scenes, and private detective agencies, most famously Pinkerton, competed for reward funds, usually raised by victims’ families and in some cases, city or state governments:

“There existed no organized system of licensing, regulating, and authorizing private investigators, except perhaps in a few larger cities. This left private citizens probing into open murder cases in significant numbers without warrants and without legal authority. Some of them were good, many of them ex-cops, but some of them were just people who had read too many Sherlock Holmes stories and appointed themselves private eyes. They would start poking around in unsolved murder cases, hoping to get the reward money or acting out fantasies of being master detectives. The cream of the crop were the Pinkerton and the Burns detective agencies, but even the Pinkerton and Burns agencies were shot through with shysters, con men, unscrupulous thugs, and rank amateurs. It was truly an awful system.”

If a culprit went to jail, frequently an angry mob would storm the facility, dragging the prisoner out without any due process, and lynching or beating him to death. Not surprisingly, many of these people were African-American.

James, to his credit, includes the names of these people in his rundown of the Man from the Train’s victims at the end of the book. He also speculates on the killer’s fate after his crime spree ends, suggesting he may have been involved in another famous unsolved case, this one in Europe. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but James makes a persuasive argument that will no doubt convince many readers.