Lolling in the sun-warmed sand, lulled by lapping waves, we crave danger in our beach books. Peter Benchley unspools a fiction about a great white shark, and we feel swimmers' bloody terror from a safe remove. Sebastian Junger paints for us a fishermen's nightmare inside a vicious nor'easter, and we know, under a cerulean sky, that the perfect storm can't harm us.
But what if corpses were moldering beneath the dunes right over there? What if the police had spent years failing to catch the murderer? And what if we were, in a way, accessories to those crimes?
"Lost Girls," journalist Robert Kolker's first book, traces the bleak lives and the aftermaths of the deaths of five young women whose remains were unearthed on a barrier island off Long Island, N.Y., in 2010 and 2011. All had worked as escorts, advertising their services online. All had gone missing without law enforcement or, in some cases, their own families doing much to find them.
The public was titillated, but hardly panicked, even inside the gated beach community where one of the bodies was found. Whoever had killed them was surely preying within a niche, and most of us live our lives well clear of it. "It is wonderful how Virtue turns from dirty stockings," as Dickens put it, and that is indeed the tendency of many of us: to avert our gaze — at least publicly — from whatever strikes us as sordid, lower class.
"It had seemed enough, at first, for some to say the victims were all just Craigslist hookers, practically interchangeable — lost souls who were dead, in a fashion, long before they actually disappeared," Kolker writes. "There is a story our culture tells about people like them, a conventional way of thinking about how young girls fall into a life of prostitution."
The Internet, he argues, has changed that, streamlining the business of exchanging sex for money, making it easier and more private for prostitutes and their johns. "The women and men who walked the street could come in from the cold, becoming free agents, liberated from the system of pimps and escort services that had exploited them for so long." But with that exploitation had come a form of protection: someone to keep track of the women and their tricks. For a homicidal john, an escort who's going it alone makes a far more vulnerable target.
Kolker, a contributing editor at New York magazine who has written about the murders in those pages, draws us in with his captivating storyteller's voice. His prologue sets an ambiguous, suspenseful scene at Oak Beach, a tiny, insular community in Babylon, N.Y., where an escort named Shannan Gilbert arrived in the wee hours one night in May 2010 to meet a john. At dawn, she fled him, screaming, pounding on neighbors' doors, calling 911. How she died — how her skeleton came to be hidden in the marsh, not far from where she was last seen that morning — is still unknown. The killings of the four others, each wrapped in burlap and found in the bramble on a nearby beach, remain unsolved as well.
After the prologue, "Lost Girls" is divided into what Kolker calls Book One and Book Two, linked by what he calls an interlude. Skipping well over 100 pages to go directly from the prologue to the interlude is probably not an effective way to read the book; most likely it wouldn't hold together. But this is an instance in which a book suffers badly from structural problems. By putting the far weakest section forward, Kolker manages to torpedo the reader's interest.
His entirely honorable and seemingly essential aim, in Book One, is to make real to us the five young women: Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman, Amber Lynn Costello, and Gilbert. What he does instead, in prose several degrees of accomplishment short of what he achieves elsewhere, is to present so many bleak, overpopulated, ill-organized tableaux of parental neglect, poverty, familial discord, drug abuse, violence, and prostitution that the women and the people in their lives blur together. "Her family was a parade of tragedy," Kolker writes in a chapter on Costello, but the same applies to all of the victims' families as he describes them here.
Book Two is where "Lost Girls" becomes hard to put down: an intrigue about Oak Beach that has echoes of Kitty Genovese, and of the Hatfields and McCoys. Who knew what, and who did what, the morning that Shannan Gilbert was desperate for their help? Did the local doctor kill her, as some of his neighbors insist? Why, exactly, did the doctor call Gilbert's mother after the escort disappeared, then deny having done so? And how badly did law enforcement drop the ball on those five murders?
Kolker can only try to answer those questions. But his convincing takeaway is both an indictment — of all of us, for our role as societal bystanders to prostitution — and a challenge.
"What's clear," he writes, "is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist. That is, after all, what the killer was counting on."
Laura Collins-Hughes, a New York freelance writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com.