I’m a sucker for crime mysteries. This comes from a long-time obsession with Law and Order in all its variations, I think–I just love procedurals. I only recently transitioned that love to books, for some reason, but now I can’t get enough. True crime is a genre I haven’t spent too much time with, as I generally prefer fiction, but I’d heard really good things about it so I wanted to give it a shot.
A few years ago, a young woman–a prostitute–called 911 from Long Island and then disappeared. During the subsequent search for her, the bodies of four other young women were discovered, each one wrapped in burlap. These women were revealed to also have been sex workers, each of them from different cities and with different backgrounds, but all of them working in the same business. Robert Kolker explores the lives of each of these four women leading up to their disappearances, and the subsequent investigation of their murders, and in doing so reveals the ins and outs of prostitution in the age of the Internet–sex work based almost entirely on Craigslist posts. It’s prostitution made easier but also more dangerous, and these women are its victims.
I really commend Kolker for his meticulous research into the lives of these women–he clearly spent a lot of time interviewing family members, friends, and acquaintances to develop a full picture of who they were as individuals. He’s never judgmental of the women he’s profiling, and does a really good job of trying to understand and honestly portray the circumstances that led them to prostitution. In that regard, the book is very well-executed, and I appreciated how much he made me feel for each of the women.
There were some big problems with the book beyond that, though. The first is that although each woman had a different story, I had a hard time keeping them straight and remembering who was who. I was also puzzled by the lack of pictures–it would have been logical, to me at least, for Kolker to include a photo of each women to really bring them to life and acknowledge that these were real women with real lives (and also help the reader keep them straight). It’s a little ironic given the title of the book–Kolker was trying to give voice to the voiceless, but by muddling their identities he doesn’t truly succeed. I also felt like Kolker had a hard time knowing what to leave out–he interviewed so many people and it seemed like he included literally everything he found, including pointless and mostly irrelevant Facebook posts and things like that.
The biggest problem, though, was that this is, as the title states, an unsolved mystery. As such, the latter half of the book, dealing with the police investigation into the murders, is noticeably weaker than the first half, which focuses more heavily on the women themselves. It’s a sad fact that the investigation hasn’t resulted in anything, and that there isn’t very much information to go on, but it makes for a boring narrative. There’s no substance to that part of the book simply because there’s nothing to write about–there aren’t any real suspects, all leads have proven to be fruitless, and as of right now, it’s a stagnant case. That’s not Kolker’s fault, obviously, but I question the logic of writing a book about it–or at least, devoting so much attention in the narrative to the actual investigation. I think that’s where the editing problem comes in–it almost felt like he realized towards the middle of the book that he was running out of things to say, so he just included everything. As a result, it was hard to finish the book, because I just lost interest. I almost wonder if he started writing when he did in hopes that the case would be solved before he finished, but then found himself stuck when nothing came of it.
It’s a shame, because the first part of the book–the stories of the women–is genuinely compelling, and I found the discussion of how prostitution is changing so dramatically in the Internet Age fascinating. If Kolker had instead chosen to write about that topic more in-depth, rather than focusing on the crime, I think the book would have been much strong. As it stands, though, it’s an uneven effort. I do think it’s worth reading if only to bring attention the complexity of prostitution and the unlikely paths that might lead to it as a career, but feel free to skip out on the last part–you won’t miss much.