An Unsolved American Mystery
Author: Robert Kolker
Review Issue Date: May 1, 2013
In his debut, New York magazine contributor Kolker delves into the disappearances and murders of five women, all working as escorts in the New York metropolitan area.
More than 100 years ago, London prostitutes were targeted by Jack the Ripper, a serial killer whose identity remains an enigma. In our brave new world of Craigslist advertisements, cellphones and escort services, one group of lost girls—Shannan, Maureen, Melissa, Megan and Amber—faced similar threats from the anonymous client(s) who eventually killed them. The author unflinchingly probes the 21st-century innovations that facilitated these crimes, which launched a media blitz that shook the integrity of a secluded Long Island community called Oak Beach. What sets his investigation apart from many true-crime tomes, however, is the attention he pays to the girls’ back stories and to the efforts of their families and friends to bring the killer to justice. We know from the title that the crimes are still unsolved, leaving Kolker free to present the bewildering array of theories held by law enforcement, neighbors, online communities and even potential suspects. Nor does the author shy away from the dysfunction that permeated all five girls’ lives: foster homes, absent parents, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancies and domineering boyfriends all play prominent roles in this narrative. Fortunately, he includes both a timeline and a list of characters for reference, as the deluge of names, dates and details can prove intimidating. Kolker also does a fine job of describing the girls’ lives without patronizing their decisions or unnecessarily inserting himself into the proceedings. Most commendably, he points out inconsistencies and dubious motives on the part of some of his interviewees; one mother, who had little to do with her daughter while she was alive, reinvented herself as a crusader for justice. Still, “[t]he issue of blame itself, in the end, may be a trap,” Kolker concludes.
An important examination of the socioeconomic and cultural forces that can shape a woman’s entry into prostitution.