LOST GIRLS: An Unsolved American Mystery,
by Robert Kolker. HarperCollins; 399 pages; $25.99
Robert Kolker’s “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery” is, physically, a well-made book. Its cover image is crisp and haunting. Someone has paid close attention to this volume’s many maps. This sense of mastery carries over into Kolker’s lean but ductile prose. Reading this true-crime book, you’re reminded of the observation that easy reading is hard writing.
Kolker has grabbed hold of a ghost story, one he grounds in insistent detail. He tells the stories of five unlucky young women. Each worked as a prostitute. Each vanished on Long Island, without the police or the media paying much attention. “A missing girl,” the author says, “is missing only to the people who notice.” Each is connected to the same criminal investigation: the case of a serial killer, or killers, operating from 1996 up to today.
“Lost Girls” is the kind of narrative that a friend of mine likes to call a “squid book.” It’s shapely at the top, and a mess of strands down below. This is another way of saying that the first half of Kolker’s book, which relates the stories of these women’s lives, is riveting and often heartbreaking. The second half, which is mostly about bumbling cops, feuding families, weirdo suspects, memorial tattoos and conspiracy theories, is tangled and merely not bad.
“Lost Girls” explores, with more insight than anything I’ve read thus far, how Internet sites like Backpage.com and Craigslist, even though it officially shut its “adult services” category in 2010, have upended the world of prostitution. All women now need to set themselves up is a laptop.
“Craigslist had done more to delegitimize the age-old system of pimps and escorts than a platoon of police officers could,” Kolker writes. “Why sign on with a pimp when it was so easy to take a picture and let a guy call you — way easier than walking the streets and looking for a guy and then trying to convince him and then waiting forever at the ATM while he tried to sober up enough to remember his PIN?”
Sleeping with men for money got these women out of dead-end jobs at places like Dunkin’ Donuts, T.J. Maxx or Blimpie. Kolker shares their hard-earned wisdom. One essential rule for outcall visits with men in New York City was this: “Don’t go to Queens. Don’t go to Brooklyn, even if it’s just over the bridge in Williamsburg. Staten Island, no. The Bronx, no. Only some parts of Manhattan were allowed.”
We first meet these young women in chapters whose titles come from their first names: Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Shannan Gilbert, Megan Waterman and Amber Overstreet Costello. We meet them later under their work names: Marie, Chloe, Angelina, Lexi, Carolina.
Most grew up poor, in broken families. Some got pregnant early or fell into drug use. Some were sexually abused when young. Kolker, a contributing editor for New York magazine, has a way of describing bad childhoods without pressing down too grimly, without becoming maudlin or overly condemning of the situations people have found themselves in.
Kolker doesn’t sentimentalize this book’s victims. “They weren’t angels,” he says. “They weren’t devils. They were more or less working alone and of their own volition. Despite what some family members said after the fact, they were not lured or overtly pressured.”
Yet he makes you rage at the indifference shown to them. “Shannan and all of the others were failed by the criminal-justice system not once but three times,” he writes. “The police had failed to help them when they were at risk. They’d failed again when they didn’t take the disappearances seriously, severely hobbling the chances of making an arrest. And they’d failed a third time by not going after the johns and drivers.”
The final chapters and creepy cover remind us, too, that the killer or killers are still out there, perhaps scanning Backpage, perhaps reading this book review.