The bodies were disposed of in garbage bins along highways. “It felt wrong,” Elon Green writes of one sanitation worker’s discovery. “It didn’t feel, he would testify, ‘like normal trash.’ Curiosity got the best of him, and he opened the bag.” A man’s head had been thrown away. Five other bags contained the rest of him. Their contents Green describes in faithful yet non-sensational detail. The man was Thomas Mulcahy, whose wife (he was closeted) had gone to file a missing person report when the police told her what they’d found. His daughter wouldn’t learn the gruesome details until the newspapers reported them.
“Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York,” Elon Green’s first book, is brutal and sad and expertly researched. An account of the “Last Call Killer,” or Richard Rogers Jr., it tenderly explores the lives, circumstances, and even the dreams of Rogers’s victims, whom he met in various New York gay bars, plied with alcohol, mutilated, and dismembered.
The murderer, police would eventually discover, was a nurse: “The arms had been carefully disarticulated, rather than dismembered. Removing an arm in this fashion, [the medical examiner] knew, required dexterity.” Rogers had grown sure of himself. After several murders, Green writes, “he turned to a date and said, ‘You should be careful who you are with because the police are looking for a serial killer.’”
Rogers worked at Mount Sinai in Manhattan, caring for children recovering from heart surgery. The hospital, Green notes, “selected nurses who were highly skilled and motivated, who could ease the pain of frightened children, talk to nervous parents about life and death, and make judgments about whether a baby was stable enough to be in their presence. Another requisite of the job was tremendous empathy, and Richard had it.” Indeed, it’s Rogers’s empathy that enables him to tell his victims — lonely men deep in drink, sometimes mere minutes away from the threat of going home alone — exactly what they want to hear.
While “Last Call” is ostensibly about a serial killer, Green leaves Rogers refreshingly opaque, even banal. Rather than bend to genre conventions — What made him do it? How was the killer treated as a child? — Green concerns himself with the victims. And not only the lives Rogers stole from them, but lives inflicted with overwhelming, horrifically ordinary suffering. To do this, Green grounds his book in the anti-queer violence of the 1990s.
To be gay (or trans, or Black, or a woman, or anyone not at the white, straight, and male center of America’s Venn diagram of sanctioned personhood) is to know that someone you’ve met, maybe dozens of someones, would have leapt at the chance to bludgeon you to death — and that this hatred has nothing to do with you. In the AIDS-panicked cities of the late eighties and early nineties, this violence was most visible against gay men and trans women. Green quotes a paper on the so-called “gay panic defense”: “Seldom is a homosexual victim simply shot… He is more apt to be stabbed a dozen or more times, mutilated, and strangled.” In passing, Green references a queer bookstore that “would be bombed twice that summer” (1991), and reminds us of a 1986 Supreme Court ruling that found “Georgia’s criminalization of oral and anal sex” to be “constitutional” — lest we mistake homophobic violence as categorically illegal.
And there was AIDS itself — an epidemic unleashed by civic neglect. As one bartender recalls, “I stopped counting at two hundred fifty people I knew… When I look through my photo albums, most every other person is dead.”
All of this is to highlight the necessity of gay spaces. “It was just a place to go for music,” as Green describes one of the book’s many bars, “and company and maybe to meet someone. It was a place where [a gay man] could, if only for a few hours a day, several days a week, be himself.” So too, the importance of lives lost — of lives nearly erased. In his epilogue, Green confronts this directly: “Once I got past the murders and the investigation, and my own disbelief that it had all been forgotten — a string of killings in New York City didn’t merit so much as a Wikipedia entry? — I became obsessed with the lives of the victims. I became obsessed with the lives they wanted but couldn’t have.” Mercifully, Green gives even the most neglected, most discarded of Rogers’s victims that honor.
Of Anthony Marrero, a sex worker identified only because of his arrest record, a local reporter observed that “No one notified police Marrero was missing… and no one has come forward since the discovery of his body to say they knew him.” His name, Green adds, “would appear once in a publicly available document… misspelled, and the Social Security number [belonging to] a woman born a year later.” Eventually, police track down Anthony’s brother, who is “despondent, embarrassed… The family wasn’t blind to how he earned his living.” The detective on the case remembers getting “the impression that they had come to grips with his life, that eventually, they knew, it would end with a knock on the door.”
“Last Call” is not only a great book, nor a mere historical correction. It is an act of compassion, offering space and love to men whose lives and literal bodies ended up right where their country, in its neglect, cruelty, and unfiltered hatred, wished them to go: in pieces, in the trash.
Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York
by Elon Green
Celadon Books, 272 pages, $27
Patrick Nathan’s second book, “Image Control: Art, Fascism, and the Right to Resist,” will be published in August.