Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Skeleton Crew

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases 
by Deborah Halber
Simon & Schuster: 7/1/2014
ebook, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781451657586

Solving cold cases from the comfort of your living room…
The Skeleton Crew provides an entree into the gritty and tumultuous world of Sherlock Holmes–wannabes who race to beat out law enforcement—and one another—at matching missing persons with unidentified remains.
In America today, upwards of forty thousand people are dead and unaccounted for. These murder, suicide, and accident victims, separated from their names, are being adopted by the bizarre online world of amateur sleuths.
The web sleuths pore over facial reconstructions (a sort of Facebook for the dead) and other online clues as they vie to solve cold cases and tally up personal scorecards of dead bodies. The Skeleton Crew delves into the macabre underside of the Internet, the fleeting nature of identity, and how even the most ordinary citizen with a laptop and a knack for puzzles can reinvent herself as a web sleuth.
My Thoughts:

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases by Deborah Halber is a very highly recommended, fascinating anecdotal look at how amateurs are solving cold cases.

Chances are you know of a cold case, an unsolved murder right in your own city.  Startlingly, according to what Halber discovered, chances are also "good that you or someone you know has at one point stumbled over a dead body. There are shockingly large numbers of them out there. According to the national institute of Justice, America is home to tens of thousands of unidentified human remains, with four thousand more turning up every year: intrepid adventurers or athletes who left their IDs at home; victims of accidents and mass disasters; suicides; undocumented immigrants; the homeless; runaway teenagers; victims of serial killers; and those who cast off a former identity, changed names, and left no forwarding address." Location 159

These cases are often given "mournful monikers" from the communities in which their bodies were found and become known as the "Tent Girl, Somerton man, Princess Doe, Saltair Sally, the Boy in the Box, the Belle in the Well, the Lady Who Danced Herself to Death." I can think of several unsolved cases where I currently live and know of others from various other communities I've lived in over the years. The number of unsolved cases is shocking. It is easy to see why law enforcement officials don't prioritize these unsolved cases when there are so many other crimes that can be solved.

While amateur detectives did try to solve some of these cases over the years, often searching for a missing relative, the age of the internet has dramatically changed their success rate. Now these same amateurs have access to much more information and they often have the time and desire to solve these cold cases. It becomes a rather macabre hobby where members have created online communities based on providing information on the cold cases and virtually compete with each other to try to solve them.

"By 2001, the same unidentified corpses that were once almost universally ignored had evolved into tantalizing clues in a massive, global version of Concentration played around the clock by a hodgepodge of self-styled amateur sleuths, a dedicated skeleton crew that shared a desire to match faces to names—and names to dead bodies. Anybody with an idealistic bent, a lot of time, and a strong stomach could sign on: a stay-at-home mom in New York, a chain store cashier in Mississippi, a nurse in Nebraska, a retired cop and his exotic-dancer girlfriend in Houston." Location 376

Halber actually looks at some of these cold cases and the legends that have sprung up around them. Intertwined in the stories about the cold cases is information about the amateurs who are spending vast amounts of personal time trying to solve them. As these online communities share tips and information on discussion boards like Cold Cases and the Doe Network, they can also get overly competitive and combative with each other. Even so, many law enforcement officials are benefiting from their skills at solving these very cold cases.

Halber writes in a very conversational, anecdotal, personal style that, after glancing at other reviews, I'm guessing you either like or don't like. I happened to enjoy The Skeleton Crew a lot and part of that enjoyment was in Halber's treatment of the topic. I found The Skeleton Crew highly entertaining. She's a great writer and, much like the cold cases she's discussing and her amateurs are trying to solve, sometimes the trail to the solution takes a few meanders before you find the identity of the deceased.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Simon & Schuster for review purposes.

Prologue: The Well Driller
The Ultimate Identity Crisis
You Can Disappear Here
It’s the Ethernet, my Dear Watson
Ghost Girls
Bring out Your Dead
Inside Reefer
The Perks of Being Ornery
Seekers of Lost Souls
How to make a John Doe
Finding Bobbie Ann
Quackie is Dead
The Head in the Bucket
The Hippie and the Lawman
The oldest Unsolved Case in Massachusetts
Relief, Sadness, Success

No comments: