Off the Shelf: The Man from the Train

As I mentioned last week, I read three books about psychopaths in one weekend. My binge actually began because I was reading a blog on Medium, which sends me random links to blogs it thinks I might like. I don’t like most of them – I really could care less about Bitcoin, I’m too much of a rebel to read the books that the most successful people out there are reading, and life is too short to follow all the advice about the one thing I need to change to become successful or happy. But the email does cause me to discover some interesting information.

The blog that caused me to read this book answered a question that I had been pondering: why is that, when I was a kid, I could get up early in the morning and take off for a day completely without parental supervision, but now it’s unthinkable to let kids do that? Granted, it was a different time where we kids didn’t even have housekeys and the doors were left open for us, even in Tucson, a relatively large city. But to think back on it now, I would get up early in the morning at aged 10, jump on my bike, rendezvous with the other kids from the neighborhood, and we’d take off. Maybe we would jump our bikes on the dirt lot near David’s house. Maybe we’d ride to the park that was several blocks away and hang out in the jungle-gym spaceships they had there. Maybe we’d sneak through the hedge at that house on the corner of the busy street (we never did figure out who lived there) and use their trampoline. Maybe we’d just sit on the wall in Roger’s back yard and eat Kumquats off his tree. Our parents never knew where we were and sometimes we never knew where they were.

Granted, this could backfire, like the time that we kids were all over at friends’ houses and my mom popped over to the neighbor’s for a moment. My littlest sister came home to an empty house and didn’t think anything of it until the mother of a schoolmate called and asked for my mom. When told she wasn’t home, the mother asked when she’d be home and something about her tone scared my sister, who suddenly realized that she was all by herself and that mom could be anywhere and she might never see her again and burst into tears. Faced with a crying child, the mother reassured her and suggested that she seek refuge at a neighbor’s, so my sister dropped the phone and returned to the friend’s house, where she happily played until she got hungry about a half hour later and came home again. Meanwhile, mom had also come home, and seeing the phone off the hook, hung it up. Mom was fixing my sister lunch when the doorbell rang. My sister answered it and, confronted with a large policeman (helpfully called by the concerned mother she had spoken to on the phone earlier), burst into tears again, convinced all her 6-year-old sins had been revealed and she was about to head to the Big House. Gosh my sister hates these stories.

Anyhow, the Medium blog was by a woman a few years younger than me who remembered when it all changed: it had to do with two serial killers who focused on kids, one of which I had read about before, the other I had not. She described how one day she was living the life I described above, and the next, suddenly the kid’s outdoor freedom turned into supervised board games in the living room, scheduled play dates, and the overscheduling of after-school activities that have become the norm now. Her post took me to the web to research those two crimes, which of course led to a perambulation of the web which ended with my discovery of this book.

As soon as I saw that it was by Bill James (yes, the Baseball Abstract Bill James) with his daughter helping on research, I was curious. After reading Popular Crime, a book that I enjoy but is so strangely written that it makes me wonder whether it gave his editor a nervous breakdown, I was curious to read another book by him. And I was not disappointed.

I was skeptical, however. The book describes, and eventually links together, a number of crimes that span years and cross the country. It’s a journey – and given James’ writing style, a rather peripatetic journey – but a journey worth taking. It starts with a houseful of murders, the local community’s reaction and the pursuit of a series of suspects. Then moves to another houseful of murders in a nearby community just across state lines, a few weeks later and the separate pursuit and prosecution of a separate suspect. Then another houseful somewhere else, months later and you begin to see that the connections that seem to apparent to you are not visible to the local communities, who are unaware of the pattern and are treating each crime as a separate event and are looking at the usual suspects: a local alcoholic with an unpleasant personality and no fixed address; a neighbor that the victims had a beef with; a son who had escaped death by being away from home that night. And you see the way that the small towns react when there’s no clear suspect – the wife was not as good as she should be, perhaps it was a man she was having an affair with, that kind of thing.

From time to time, the James team describe other crimes, similar crimes that almost fit the pattern but not quite. Are they related or not? Perhaps they indicate that the murderer was interrupted or that the murderer was shifting to a new pattern. Eventually the authors link them or unlink them, admitting sometimes that they can’t include or dismiss a particular case because there just isn’t enough information about that case to see whether it fits the pattern or not. Why isn’t there enough information? For the most part, they are relying on journalistic coverage and some of these crimes happen in places too small, or too poor, to have a local newspaper or even a law enforcement office, or where the newspapers have been lost to time.

Is it possible that we’re experiencing pattern bias, where our minds look for patterns that aren’t there because humans like patterns, they comfort us? In one masterful section, the baseball abstract James comes out, and he lays out the number of crimes and the distinguishing features of those crimes, and puts them in the context of all the crimes happening in that time period, to prove his case: there is a pattern and here’s how it links together, and here’s where we see things that don’t fit.

It’s a masterful book and one that Bill and his daughter seem to have had fun putting together. This is still the Bill James of Popular Crimes – his voice and writing style are strong and take a little getting used to, as his opinionated asides can be jarring sometimes.

But more than the crime, what is fascinating is the picture the authors present about the time that the crimes occurred – late 1800’s, early 1900’s. It was a time when, as I said above, many communities didn’t have law enforcement or newspapers. Where crimes were linked by railroad lines, similar to crimes that now follow the interstates. When crimes happened and it wasn’t immediately clear who was responsible, the victim’s family or maybe the community put together a reward and hired private detectives, sometimes with crazy results that would be unbelievable — except that given the events of the last two years nothing is unbelievable anymore — as the book describes.

The book moves back and forth between the decades, moving forward from 1912 to 1914, back to 1908, eventually to 1898, and describes the changes that were happening in the world that eventually allowed people to recognize that the crimes might be connected, although they were never “solved” and a suspect was never apprehended. And yet, although people have become more adept at linking related crimes, he makes the case that, even today, law enforcement can be reluctant to see patterns or look beyond the personal motivation for a crime that seems to be related to that pattern, which led my mind to Jon Benet Ramsey, a crime for which we’ll probably never know the truth.

Sometimes we’ll never find out the answer. But, for many of the crimes described in this book, the James team proposes a solution.

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