The Writer as Sleuth
By Dean Jobb
It was the real-life equivalent of a locked-room mystery. The body of Mary Emsley, a wealthy seventy-year-old widow, was found in her East End London home in 1860. Her skull had been crushed and a bloody boot print was the only clue to her assailant. There was no sign of forced entry, her backyard could only be accessed through neighboring houses, and no one was seen emerging from the front door.
James Mullins, a man who did odd jobs for Emsley, was convicted of the murder. But Arthur Conan Doyle was one of many who suspected an innocent man was sent to the gallows and the real killer had escaped. There were too many loose ends, too many lingering doubts, to state with certainty that justice was done.
Authors of murder mysteries have it easy—well, easier, at least. They know the killer’s identity before they begin and can rework the plot as they write if a better suspect comes to mind. But for writers of true crime, the ultimate challenge is to produce a whodunit about an unsolved crime or a wrongful conviction that reveals who really—or likely—did it.
Here are three new books by authors who have dusted off yellowing court files and scoured newspaper coverage in an effort to nail overlooked suspects and crack long-forgotten cold cases.
Sinclair McKay tackles the enduring Emsley mystery in The Mile End Murder: The Case Conan Doyle Couldn't Solve (Quatro Group/Aurum Press). The “seemingly inexplicable” aspects to the case, he notes, include how the killer “entered and left without leaving any signs of breaking in, or having been seen by another soul.”
Conan Doyle was putting the finishing touches on The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901 when he set aside Sherlock Holmes to write a handful of true crime stories for The Strand Magazine, among them “The Debatable Case of Mrs. Emsley.” Conan Doyle, who would go on to champion and exonerate convicted murderer Oscar Slater, was drawn to the Emsley case, McKay writes, because it raised a “hideous question: did the authorities convict and hang the wrong man?”
McKay, whose previous books focused on Britain’s Second World War code breakers and fighter pilots, restages the crime and vividly portrays life in the impoverished East End. Plenty of people may have wanted Emsley dead—she was a Scrooge-like property owner who insisted on collecting weekly rents in person and sometimes feuded with struggling tenants. Surviving relatives hoped for an inheritance. Mullins, a former London policeman with a criminal record for theft, was charged after trying to cast suspicion on another man who worked for Emsley.
After methodically reassembling the evidence, McKay confirms Conan Doyle’s fear that an innocent man was hanged. He goes one step further, naming the man he is convinced was responsible and making a compelling case for a posthumous verdict of guilty. Is he right? Read this engaging book and judge for yourself.
True crime newcomer Miriam Davis tackles a century-old cold case—who was the axe-wielding man who murdered at least seven people and wounded many more in New Orleans between 1910 and 1919? A historian based in Alabama, Davis became obsessed with the mystery after initial research suggested early accounts of the murders were sensationalized and incomplete.
In The Axeman of New Orleans: The True Story (Chicago Review Press), she chronicles a killing spree that targeted Italian grocers and their families. Victims were attacked as they slept, usually with an axe found on the premises or nearby. “The Axeman was a coward who could only face his victims as they slept,” Davis writes. “He was a predator who could only prey on the helpless.” The killer acted with Jack-the-Ripper efficiency and, at one point, a New Orleans newspaper received a Ripper-like letter, purportedly from the Axeman, claiming he was “a fell demon from the hottest hell.”
Author Gary Krist skillfully recreated the killing spree in Empire of Sin, his 2014 book on crime and vice in early-twentieth-century New Orleans, and called it “one of the great unsolved mysteries in the serial-killer literature.” An Italian man and his teenaged son were convicted of murder in one of the attacks, but later exonerated.
While Krist attributed most of the killings to “a brutal underworld enforcer,” Davis believes it was the work of a psychopath, likely a drug-addled loner with a history of petty crimes and a grudge against Italian immigrants. But she has no better luck when it comes to naming a suspect. She’s more successful in expanding the list of victims, uncovering similar murders of three more Italians in other parts of Louisiana in 1920 and 1921. It’s unlikely, she argues, that “someone else with no apparent motive” was “preying on Italian grocers with an axe.”
Davis’s research is thorough and well-documented. She opens the book with a short passage imagined from the killer’s point of view and peppers the story with bits of invented dialogue to capture what was likely said at key moments. These storytelling techniques are effective, used sparingly, and flagged for readers in the preface, with the fictionalized elements rendered in italics for clarity.
While the Axeman was terrorizing New Orleans, brutal axe murders were occurring at isolated farms and in small towns across the country, from Florida to Washington State. This killer struck about midnight, slaughtered entire families—usually inflicting blows to the head with the blunt end of an axe—and locked up or set fire to the house. There was another similarity linking these crimes—the targeted homes were close to railroad lines, affording the killer the means for a quick escape.
In The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery (Scribner), father-daughter team Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James contend that one man was responsible for as many as 101 murders over a fourteen-year period ending in 1912 (they exclude the New Orleans murders as the work of another axeman). If they’re right, this “roving monster” has even more blood on his hands. Four men were wrongly convicted and executed for some of his murders and seven fell prey to lynch mobs. Four more served long prison terms and as many as 100 suspects were detained or tried and acquitted.
There was little thought, at the time, that the murders might be connected. The killer chose out-of-the-way locales that lacked organized police forces and nosy journalists. He was also smart and astonishingly good at what he did. “He is able to slink into town, commit his murders, spend an hour or two in the house after the crime without being discovered,” the Jameses explain, “and get out of the house and out of town before anybody knows he is there—again and again and again.”
Bill James, a pioneer in analyzing baseball statistics—he’s an advisor for the Boston Red Sox—applied his impressive number-crunching skills to a mountain of information about the crimes he and his daughter gleaned from clippings found in digitized databases of old newspapers. As a result, they have identified more than thirty similarities that suggest the 101 murders were the work of one man.
“It is simply not reasonable or logical to suppose that these could be random, unconnected events,” they assert. The evidence they have amassed is persuasive, but taking the next logical step requires readers to make a leap of faith. The Jameses believe they have identified one of the most prolific serial killers in history.
The culprit, they argue, was a short, stout, nondescript German-born farmhand named Paul Mueller, who claimed his first victims in Massachusetts in 1898, hopped onto a train, and never looked back. The authors suggest he gained skill and confidence as he added to his body count.
Some readers will be sceptical. I was surprised to see a 1906 multiple murder in a mining town in Nova Scotia, the Canadian province where I live, included in the list of possible crimes. The Man from the Train would have had to travel some 2,000 miles—an odd detour for a predator with his choice of targets in the United States—and the authors admit the method and trackside location offer tenuous links to the other murders.
For me, the Nova Scotia murders flag possible limitations in the Jameses’ research—they appear to have overlooked coverage of this case in major local newspapers not yet available in databases. The book lacks a list of sources but it appears the authors did not track down newspapers on microfilm or original case files from archives and courthouses, which could have added more detail and cleared up inconsistencies and errors in press reports. This information, in turn, could have bolstered their case for connecting some killings while eliminating doubtful cases.
“We’re not sociologists or psychologists or criminologists or detectives. We’re not even real historians,” the authors note. “We’re just writers. These are just the facts as best we can tell.”
As these books show, writers can be as thorough, relentless, and skilled as any detective. And their readers, playing the role of judge and jury, can weigh the evidence and decide whether some of the coldest of cold cases have been solved.
Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books), the true story of 1920s Chicago swindler Leo Koretz. His next book recreates the crimes of Thomas Neill Cream, a Victorian-era doctor who murdered at least ten people in Canada, Chicago and London. His website is www.deanjobb.com.