The National Post

"Lost Girls, then, is partly unsolved mystery, complete with suspicious characters including Brewer, a self-obsessed blowhard, and a doctor living in Oak Beach named Peter Hackett, who seems to be a compulsive fibber and storyteller. The book is also the intimate story of the five women, whose unhappy childhoods and tangled family lives and eventual careers in the sex trade are exhaustively chronicled by Kolker. Finally, Lost Girls is a case study in the profound impact of the Internet, and particularly Craigslist, on the business of buying and selling sex."

 - Philip Marchand, NATIONAL POST (Toronto)



True Crime at Its Finest: Lost Girls by Robert Kolker

True crime isn’t something we feature often on MysteryPeople, and yet it is a craze and a phenomenon that has been popular much longer than people have acknowledged.  The tradition of the true crime book and its incredible fandom goes back many years, but it’s difficult to place a book that is as popular or widely read as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls.  Lost Girls is special for many reasons, covering the Long Island Serial Killings of recent years.  It is popular mostly for its ability to portray the real lives of the women (who did mostly work as sex workers) and how real their plights were, and how effective and ultimately destructive their deaths were.

I first read Kolker’s Lost Girls a year or so ago, but returned to it recently when I needed some comfort. Kolker’s writing style provides that, not just through lyrical sentences and beautiful construction of images and ideas, but largely through the compassion Kolker feels toward these women.  If watching movies and tv shows made and developed by men who have turned out to be sexual predators depresses you, you might find solace in Kolker’s brilliant and wonderful understanding of the human mind—and the female mind—in this great book. Kolker does not focus solely on the hunt for the serial killer (or, perhaps, serial killers?). Of course, it is an unsolved mystery to this date, and we may never know the truth about these women’s deaths, as unfortunate as that is for the victims and their families.  But that is where Kolker strikes gold in our hearts: he concentrates on the victims, their lives and their hearts, and what made the veins in their bodies pulse as opposed to what eventually ceased all life in them all together.

Kolker somehow remains both neutral and empathetic, showing how sex work is necessary for many individuals who cannot make ends meet, or may seek out the profession for many other reasons (even, perhaps, enjoying the work).  The author is nonjudgmental and as fair with the story as he can be, acknowledging the fallacies in people’s own stories and arguments, and meanwhile struggling to uncover the truth for these women. There is definitely a sense that Kolker wants to champion these lost girls, as the title states, long after their deaths, and have them remembered for the brilliant but complicated lives they lived.

Of course, there is a twist.  In fact, there may be more than one, but I can’t really tell you that.  Why would I spoil what Megan Abbott has claimed is the greatest book of this decade? (Yes, you heard me correctly, she actually said that.) I have purposefully avoided giving details because you need to pick up a copy of this book and give it a try, and you need to reach out to family members and friends and show them the work of Robert Kolker.  This is not solely to appreciate the life and work of Kolker himself, but also to remember the women lost to brutality and an America that only cares for privileged women who can be viewed as “victims,” not lost girls.

-Matthew Turbeville, MYSTERYPEOPLE

The Oregonian

"No writer in recent memory does as careful and respectful a job of illuminating the lives of the murdered as Robert Kolker, in his magnificent if deeply grim Lost Girls: An Unsolved American MysteryThe girls of the title are five young women whose bodies were found on a barrier island off Long Island. The subtitle tells the reader there will be no resolution, no denouement in the capture of what is presumed to be a serial killer. The book is instead a forensic examination of the girls' lives, the near year-to-year moments of promise but exponentially of torment before their roads ended."

Nancy Rommelmann, THE OREGONIAN 

Metro Pulse (Knoxville, Tennessee)

Lost Girls doesn’t end neatly. There’s not an ending, not yet, and there very well may never be one.

Kolker, a writer for New York magazine, delves deep into the lives of five prostitutes whose bodies were found on Long Island in 2010 and 2011. Four of the women appear to have been killed by the same person—there are varying theories about the fifth—but the crime remains unsolved. Also unclear is whether other bodies found nearby are the work of the same killer, or if the remote stretches of Jones, West Gilgo, and Oak Beaches were appealing dumping grounds for more than one murderer.

Yet Kolker’s aim is not to solve the killings or suggest a new suspect the police have overlooked, like so many true crime writers do. Instead, Kolker paints a portrait of the five women’s lives and that of their families—what drove them to prostitution, and, specifically, what drove them to post their services on Craigslist. There are broken families, abusive pimps, and drugs, but the stories of Maureen, Melissa, Shannan, Megan, and Amber are so much more complex than the usual tired cliches, much to Kolker’s credit.

“I can’t believe they’re doing all this for a whore,” Kolker quotes one unnamed television journalist as saying at a memorial service for the dead women. And Kolker has admitted in interviews that he was equally dismissive when the story first appeared on his radar. But, as he notes, that’s what the killers are counting on—no one cares about prostitutes, especially ones that go missing.

Except, as Kolker ably demonstrates, that isn’t true. There are families, even estranged ones, left behind. Children. Friends. Lovers. Mentors. Lost Girls walks a fine line between pathos and horror, and it’s an important depiction of lives all too rarely left unseen.

 - Cari Wade Gervin, METRO PULSE

Washington Times

"Mr. Kolker has done a superb job of interviewing relatives, keeping the memories alive of missing loved ones, fully aware they may be lost forever. The police are still searching desolate places such as Gilgo Beach, still interviewing possible suspects and still seeking evidence, but nothing they do will be enough for the women’s families. They are hoping for a serial killer to be captured, but so far, he’s still out there, checking the Web and waiting to strike."


Brooklyn Based

"In marked departure from the serial killer genre, Robert Kolker, a contributing editor at New York Magazine, makes the victims, not the monster, the central focus of Lost Girls. With every page, every detail, every quote, he paints five incredibly nuanced portraits of five complicated, difficult, troubled and ultimately hopeful young women.... It’s a feat of reporting and of clear-eyed, unflinching compassion that is not to be missed."

Annaliese Griffin, BROOKLYN BASED 

Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Here is access to a world a lot of us would rather not think about and a way to confront the larger mystery of why women’s deaths in the sex trade are still considered inevitable.

"It is a fast and compelling read, well organized and researched, illustrated with ghost maps in gray and black that evoke the night landscape. Gilbert’s story drives the narrative, the first half devoted to the women’s stories, the second half to an investigation riddled with gaps and delays.

"Kolker writes masterfully about place, from fast-food alleys of industrial towns to the poison ivy-infested salt marsh of Oak Beach. His human portraits are sharp yet compassionate, rendered in rough language and complicated by subplots of addiction and economic hardship."



Flare Magazine (Canada)

In 2010, police discovered the bodies of four young women on a remote Long Island shoreline. Writer Robert Kolker decided to ditch the more sensational serial-killer hunt potboiler for an in-depth look at the lives lost. Amber, Megan, Melissa, Maureen and Shannan (whose body was found in 2011) are all petite, pretty, in their 20s… and escorts. Their disappearances—like those of Robert Pickton’s victims, or the three abducted women recently rescued in Cleveland— barely register with the police and media.

Kolker resurrects them—whether it’s Melissa doodling plans for her future salon, or Megan cannonballing into a hotel pool—via extensive interviews with family and friends. “I hope it helps people understand the worlds these women came from,” he says. Indeed, it’s impossible not to see yourself in their ambitions and struggles. “Rather than surrender their financial fate to a minimum-wage job with no benefits and no future, they decide to go into business for themselves. Prostitution is mainstreaming. More women who lead normal lives are drawn into it because it promises an economic freedom they feel is unavailable to them otherwise.” The investigation was “hobbled from the start because the initial disappearances weren’t taken as seriously as they would have been if these women weren’t written off as prostitutes,” Kolker says. While there’s no satisfying Law & Order–style ending, there’s a different kind of victory. The mothers and sisters of the missing girls become friends and advocates; as with Kolker’s book, they give the lost girls the dignity and attention that eluded them in their too-brief lives.

- "Most Intriguing Reads of Summer," FLARE  


The Globe and Mail

"Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is the story of how that apathy can empower a serial killer.... Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews, Kolker retraces the lives of the five women whose bodies were found on Long Island – their personalities, their loves, their silly habits, their addictions. His ability to animate their lives is bedrock of this book, more a work of victim analysis than police procedural.... His tireless reporting has done for the Long Island case what Stevie Cameron did for the Robert Pickton murders: created a full, agonizing account of a horrible murder case involving neglected women that tells us bad things about ourselves."

- Patrick White, GLOBE AND MAIL (Toronto)


New York Daily News

"The power of Robert Kolker’s immensely evocative book Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is that it makes it close to impossible to look into the lives of Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Lynn Overstreet Costello and not feel their loss. As well as their losses. The same holds for Shannan Gilbert, whose body was discovered in a nearby marsh a year later. The police had been searching for her after an incident at the gated community of Oak Beach on Jones Beach Island when they happened on the four corpses. Kolker, a writer for New York magazine, is able to dispassionately flesh out what it means to grow up not standing much of a chance, as these women did."

- Sherryl Connolly, NY DAILY NEWS


Nina Burleigh

"In an engrossing new book titled Lost Girls: An Unsolved American MysteryNew York magazine writer Robert Kolker has put real lives behind the dolled-up selfies these women posted online. Theirs were the brutish lives of Americans born into the misery of economically and spiritually gutted small-town mid-Atlantic America. Their own mothers scraped and struggled to get by, working at Sears, casinos, Dunkin’ Donuts, motels. Fathers were absent. Grandparents, neighbors, foster parents stepped in to fill the care gap.

They suffered from domestic chaos, emotional problems, childhood abuse, unplanned pregnancies, bad boyfriends. The hallmark of their brief adult lives was the relentless pressure to bring in money to keep a roof over their own heads and the tiny heads of the babies they produced long before they were ready.

Each of them found a way to a modicum of financial stability through Craigslist, becoming “providers,” in john-speak—selling sex to make ends meet.

This is a car-crash of a story, but the most disturbing aspect is the way authorities couldn’t have cared less about these women. The inescapable impression one takes away from Lost Girlsis that police rank Craigslist prostitutes somewhere below lost dogs."

 - Nina Burleigh, NEW YORK OBSERVER



"Kolker indulges in zero preaching and very little sociology; his is the lens of a classic police reporter. And often in "Lost Girls," the facts are eloquent in themselves.... Long Islanders will be particularly engrossed by a 21-page section called "Interlude: Oak Beach, 2010," in which Kolker digs below the Twin Peaks-like gloss on this seaside outpost of 72 homes, where "a woman had gone around the neighborhood banging on doors and screaming bloody murder before disappearing into the night."

 - Karen Long, NEWSDAY