AUGUST 21, 2014
TENT GIRL’S BODY was found by the side of the road in Sadieville, Kentucky, on May 17, 1968, tightly wrapped in a green canvas tarp. Her right hand was clenched and her fingernails were shattered, indicating that she might have tried to claw her way out of the tarp. The Lady of the Dunes was discovered in a pine grove near a remote Provincetown beach on July 26, 1974. She was lying on her stomach on a green beach blanket; her hands had been cut off, and her wrists were jammed into the sand. Caledonia Jane Doe died in upstate New York, not far from the Canadian border; her body was found on November 9, 1979. She was wearing corduroy pants, a plaid shirt, and blue knee socks. “She had brown, wavy hair that had been frosted several months prior, a rather deep tan, and tanlines indicating that she had worn a bikini frequently,” the police report noted. She had been shot execution-style: once in her back, and then in her right temple.
Two and a half million people die in the United States each year. Of those, several thousand remain unidentified. If standard-issue dead bodies are troubling, then the unidentified dead are doubly so. They’re denied the funeral rites and mourning rituals we use to mollify death and bring solace to the living. Instead, their unsorted bones get crammed into a drawer in a police department’s evidence room, or they’re buried with hundreds of others in a potter’s field at the edge of town. No one cries over their graves on birthdays and anniversaries. It’s easy to understand why so many ghosts moan out requests for closure, answers, names: there’s something deeply unfair about an unclaimed corpse. Without a story to pin to their life, their death is all we know of them.
On a more practical level, not knowing whom a corpse belongs to makes solving a murder even more challenging; most cases involving unidentified bodies are never solved. Many of those are quickly forgotten, as the bodies depressingly keep coming in. But some particularly haunting cases evolve into local legends, or cause detectives to stay up late, poring over old case files. As among the missing, certain among the unclaimed dead — generally young white women — are more charismatic than others. For years, the Provincetown chief of police kept the Lady of the Dunes’s skull on his desk: a clue, a relic, an admonition not to forget.
In her book The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, Deborah Halber explores the self-styled detectives who spend evenings and weekends scouring missing-persons reports trying to match bodies with names. They congregate in forums and message boards like the Doe Network, Porchlight International for the Missing and Unidentified, JusticeQuest, and Websleuths Crime Sleuthing Community, where they swap stories about runaways and examine photos of decaying remains.
Many of the people Halber profiles have dealt with mysteries or tragedies in their own lives: the beloved murdered nephew; the husband who went out for a motorcycle ride and never came back. The Doe Network and similar sites may have initially offered the promise of closure, but the appeal soon turned into something more. The most dedicated posters seem to get just as much satisfaction in finding answers on behalf of complete strangers. “If I ever find a match [for] just one [unidentified corpse], I’ll know I made a difference in the world,” one poster writes.
But solving cold cases turns out to be more difficult than it is on TV. Most amateur detectives never make a match between an unidentified corpse and a missing-person report. They keep looking anyway, though, and through her reporting on cold-case sleuths in places like Cottageville, South Carolina and Livingston, Tennessee, Halber shows how their interest can shift into an unhealthy compulsion, an obsessive search for a connection that may never arrive. But there are success stories, too. One of Halber’s subjects, Todd Matthews, a former Kentucky factory worker, spent so much time researching the Tent Girl case that he racked up huge credit card bills; eventually, his wife, Lori, left him. Not long after he wooed her back, he came upon a missing-person listing that matched up with Tent Girl’s details. His successful solve not only provided answers to the missing woman’s family, it also won him an appearance on 48 Hours and, eventually, a job with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a government database that attempts to resolve cases of missing persons and unidentified human remains. His current life is, in a way, in debt to the dead:
At the time [he solved the case], it took his eleven dollars an hour and every penny of Lori’s income to cover the mortgage on the trailer, the family’s food and credit card bills, dog and cat treats, car payments, and Dillan’s Star Wars figurines; but, post–Tent Girl, almost every facet of his life would change. “We wouldn’t be here” — I could picture Todd waving a hand around the two-story brick house he and Lori built, with a designer kitchen; walls painted in shades of pumpkin, spice, and sage; French doors; a cathedral-ceilinged living room with a leather couch — “if not for Tent Girl.”
No one of these stories is strong enough to carry the book. Instead, Halber weaves together a half-dozen cold cases, and delivers brief profiles of scores of tangential characters. She’s an engaging, artful writer, which helps as the narrative threads start to get tangled. Part of the difficulty is that none of the other amateur detectives’ stories are as dramatic or as appealingly resolved as Matthews’s. Even the successes don’t tend to have the ready-made twists of a Law & Order episode; rather, it’s a matter of matching the description of the homeless addict’s body to the missing person’s report his sister filed a few states away. Halber visits other posters in their cluttered homes, watches as they log in to clunky computers, wipes their dogs’ hair off her jacket. A few prominent members drop out of the Doe scene during the course of her research because the cold-case world gets to be too all-consuming for them. One of the book’s final chapters gets into the knotty feuds that periodically tear apart online sleuthers, which turns out to be just as territorial and snark-filled as everywhere else on the internet. Even Matthews, the online detective poster boy, is forcibly evicted from one of the sites he helped found.
In fiction, the detective is the person willing to venture into the darkness in order to find answers. Inevitably, they take on some of that darkness themselves — picture Philip Marlowe chain-smoking cigarettes in some LA dive, or the deepening lines on Mariska Hargitay’s face as she surveys another mutilated sex worker/murdered kid/weeping father on this week’s episode of Law & Order: SVU. Even with the clues satisfyingly mapped out and the culprit apprehended, unease lingers. When Todd Matthews solved the Tent Girl mystery, he was ecstatic; it baffled him, he tells Halber, when the missing woman’s family reacted to the news with markedly less enthusiasm. (They’re now all good friends.) A crime may be solved, but that doesn’t mean it’s been resolved.
That’s partly what’s addictive about true crime. Sensation (stories of murders, rapes, horrific childhoods, mystery corpses, etc.) is coupled with the promise of resolution (the bad guy caught, the good detective promoted, the name finally assigned to a body). The order of the world, which had been temporarily thrown into chaos, is put back together again. But that sense of order is fundamentally unstable; murders keep happening, and disequilibrium may well be the natural state of the world. And so we pick up another Ann Rule book and stay up all night, safe in bed, scaring ourselves to sleep but not quite to death.
It would’ve been easy for Halber to make Skeleton Crew a simpler story, one of noble eccentrics bringing closure to strangers. And while she does hit those notes, she also seems uncomfortable at that narrative’s neatness. In Skeleton Crew, Halber devotes a couple of chapters to her own quest to identify the Lady of the Dunes. It’s a magazine article gimmick, the kind of thing a lazier writer would tease and then amplify into more of a story than it really is. But Halber always seems a little wishy-washy about her search, and when (spoiler alert) she can’t make a match, it’s not really a letdown, because it was never really the point, either. The real quest is the search itself, that impossible and irresistible attempt to make a connection with the dead.
I enjoyed Skeleton Crew, in spite of what I saw as the book’s flaws — the way it’s not organized around a clear protagonist, the tangled narrative, the proliferation of characters who are hard to keep track of. These may just be the problems that crop up with first books, though Halber has decades of experience as a professional writer. But I came to realize that a neater version of Skeleton Crew would feel false, the way any chirpy promise of closure or good coming from evil is at best unsatisfying and at worst deeply insulting.
Halber’s book confirmed something I’ve suspected for a while — that books are not the best or most honest way to tell true-crime stories. Instead, consider the message board, the form preferred by Halber’s amateur detectives. It goes on and on, and never promises or delivers resolution. Repetition and obsession are built into the form, and so it suits stories of trauma — as anyone who’s experienced it can tell you, violence does fucked up things to time. Instead of a neat narrative that ends with a trial, you get an infinite series of parallel universes in which crime happens over and over and over again. The ending may always be the same — a young woman’s body wrapped tightly in canvas, discarded by the side of a Kentucky highway — but we can spend forever getting there.