The Best True Crime of 2019
By Dean Jobb
A shocking terrorist attack on a cruise ship. The marathon interrogations that cracked a forty-year-old cold case. The murder of a Canadian gold-mining magnate on a Caribbean island. And the Bible-toting serial killer who captivated novelist Harper Lee. As the year winds down, here’s a roundup of some of the best true crime books of 2019.
Prospector Harry Oakes was convinced he would one day strike it rich. He wandered the globe for more than a decade, scrambling to join the Klondike gold rush and pursuing quixotic quests in Australia, the Philippines, and the Nevada desert. Finally, at the bottom of a pit in Northern Ontario in 1916, he found his mother lode—a thick vein of high-grade gold ore that made him a multimillionaire. But Oakes had made another prediction in his youth. “I shall die violently,” he told a friend, “with my boots on, I hope.”
The offhand comment proved eerily prescient. In 1943, when he was sixty-eight, and long after he had become Sir Harry Oakes, his battered, burned, and bootless corpse was found in his villa in the Bahamas. No one was ever convicted of the murder. A succession of authors and at least four films have documented this Caribbean cold case, but Canadian author Charlotte Gray examines Oakes’s life and death through fresh eyes in Murdered Midas: A Millionaire, His Gold Mine, and a Strange Death on an Island Paradise (HarperCollins).
Gray is Canada’s most accomplished popular historian, with books on subjects as diverse as the life of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, and the Klondike gold rush that drew Oakes to Canada’s North. The Massey Murder, her 2013 book on the fatal shooting of a Toronto businessman in 1915, was her first foray into true crime, and she has become a convert to the genre. “Murder,” as she noted in a recent essay in the Literary Review of Canada, can serve as “a doorway into a fascinating period.”
Murdered Midas immerses readers in the mining boom that transformed Canada in the early twentieth century, a world of grubby frontier towns and shady promoters. Enter American-born Oakes (he hailed from Maine), a loner whose determination paid off and made him fabulously wealthy—and widely reviled. “Harry,” recalled one mining engineer, “had a genius for making unnecessary enemies.” The backdrop then switches to the sun-drenched Bahamas; Oakes decamped to the tax haven in the 1930s to keep his fortune beyond the reach of the Canadian government. He was soon hobnobbing with the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, who became the colony’s governor after abdicating in 1936 and was party to the botched murder investigation.
The sensational trial of Oakes’s detested playboy son-in-law, Alfred de Marigny, for the murder elbowed aside news of World War Two battles in papers around the world. Gray masterfully reconstructs the trial and sifts through decades of speculation about the case—“Oakes obsession,” as she terms it, that included fanciful claims he was the victim of a mob hit—to suggest who was behind the murder. Her deeply researched, brilliantly told account, with its motley cast of characters and exotic locale, is an engrossing must-read.
While Oakes’s death spawned a mini-industry of books and movies, the kidnapping of two girls in suburban Washington, D.C. in 1975 soon faded from the public eye. Sheila Lyon, 12, and her ten-year-old sister Kate walked to a shopping mall near their home to buy slices of pizza, then vanished. An extensive search and investigation failed to locate the girls or identify suspects. But the Montgomery County Police kept the file open, chipping away at a case that marked a “permanent loss of innocence,” in the words of one parent, at a time when child abductions were still rare. And the mystery left a lasting impression on a journalist-turned-author who covered their disappearance as a twenty-three-year-old cub reporter for a Baltimore newspaper: Mark Bowden.
“As the decades passed I wrote thousands more stories, big ones and small ones,” recalls Bowden, hailed as a “master of narrative nonfiction” by the New York Times and best known for his 1999 book Black Hawk Down, a gritty, you-are-there portrayal of an ill-fated U.S. special forces mission in Somalia. “Few stories haunted me as this one did.” Cold-case teams “are the turners of last stones, laboring in a landscape beyond hope,” he writes. And the last stone in the case of the missing Lyon sisters turned out to be Lloyd Lee Welch, a teenager police had interviewed at the time but had never considered as a suspect. Thirty-eight years later, in 2013, an officer sifting through the massive case file stumbled upon Welch’s dodgy statement and spotted his resemblance to a composite sketch of a young man seen staring at the girls.
The Last Stone: A Masterpiece of Criminal Interrogation (Atlantic Monthly Press) is Bowden’s blow-by-blow account of how this long-sought breakthrough brought justice and closure. Welch was in prison in 2013 and had racked up convictions for sexually abusing children after the 1975 incident, making his guilt seem likely. But cracking the case demanded the relentless work of Detective Dave Davis and other Montgomery County police officers, who slowly extracted the truth. As Bowden’s title makes clear, their interrogations of Welch and other suspects and witnesses—recreated from recordings and transcripts that have been edited only “for concision and clarity,” he notes—form the core of the book.
Welch is a compulsive liar who insisted he was being honest even as he withheld vital clues and spun a web of fabrications and half-truths. “Anyone who asserts so often that he is telling the truth probably isn’t,” Bowden notes. “He had sworn on enough imaginary Bibles to fill a garage.” The book shows how skillful questioning and dogged police work finally broke through his defenses to uncover a conspiracy of silence, shocking family secrets, and decades of incest and sexual abuse—all culminating in a horrific abduction and murder. It’s a master class in detective work, and Bowden’s absorbing narrative puts readers inside the interrogation room.
It has been almost 35 years since Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists seized the liner Achille Lauro during a Mediterranean cruise. In our security-obsessed post-9/11 world, it seems incredible that four armed men were able to commandeer a massive ship and hold more than 400 people hostage. They breezily boarded with AK-47 machine guns and grenades tucked into their carry-on bags. Fake passports identified them as citizens of Argentina, Portugal, or Norway, but none could speak more than a few words of Spanish or Portuguese, let alone Norwegian. Their biggest challenges were adapting to shipboard routines and hiding their weapons from crew members who cleaned their cabins.
New York-based author and journalist Julie Salamon meticulously recreates a poorly planned attack that culminated in the murder of an American passenger, and the international intrigue that followed, in An Innocent Bystander: The Killing of Leon Klinghoffer (Little, Brown). A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, she has burrowed deep into this story and interviewed many of the key players, from the ship’s captain and officials inside the Reagan administration to Bassam al-Ashker, who was just seventeen when he was tapped to lead the attacks.
Salamon traces the hijackings, bombings, and retaliatory military raids—the “ritualized cycle of violence,” as she terms it—that rocked the Middle East in the lead-up to the seizure of the Achille Lauro in October 1985. The hijackers considered America an enemy as great as Israel (“Arafat good! Reagan bad!” one shouted), compounding the danger for Klinghoffer and other passengers who were American and Jewish. When Syrian officials bowed to American pressure and refused to allow the ship to land, one outraged hijacker executed Klinghoffer and ordered crewmen to throw his body overboard. Klinghoffer’s vulnerability—almost seventy, he was confined to a wheelchair and had difficulty speaking after a stroke—compounded the cruelty of his murder.
But Americans were not the target of the botched hijacking. A militant PLO faction had hoped to use the ship to land the terrorists at an Israeli port, where they would attack civilians and strike at Israel. An Innocent Bystander takes readers from the Italian courtroom where the hijackers stood trial (they were arrested in Italy) to Iraq, where the attack’s mastermind Abu al-Abbas took refuge, to California, where Jewish extremists were suspected of planting a bomb that killed a Palestinian-American, apparently in retaliation for Klinghoffer’s death. Salamon deftly leads readers through the maze of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while her extensive interviews reveal the human tragedy at the heart of this almost-forgotten international incident.
The novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic exploration of crime and injustice, and it’s well known that its author, Harper Lee, helped her childhood friend Truman Capote research the Kansas murders chronicled in his 1966 classic In Cold Blood. But even Lee’s most ardent fans may be surprised to discover that she investigated a sensational true-crime case of her own—the sordid tale of an Alabama preacher suspected of murdering five members of his family so he could cash in on life insurance policies.
In Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf), journalist and first-time author Casey Cep offers a richly detailed and elegantly written account of a forgotten serial killer and a true crime book Lee researched but never wrote. It’s also a fascinating primer on subjects as diverse as voodoo rituals in the Deep South and how the Civil War created the life-insurance industry.
Insurance fraud fueled the brazen, callous crimes of the Reverend Willie Maxwell. Policies were cheap and easy to buy, and murder can be hard to prove—a combination Maxwell exploited. As the bodies piled up, the police seemed powerless to stop him; in the hardscrabble towns of rural Alabama, fear stoked rumours that he possessed voodoo powers. “The only thing scarier than an unknown murderer,” notes Cep, “is a known one.” When Maxwell was shot as he presided over the funeral of his final victim, this heady mix of crime and superstition drew Lee, Alabama’s most esteemed author, to the 1977 trial of his killer. More than fifteen years after To Kill a Mockingbird made her wealthy, famous, and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Lee spent years investigating Maxwell’s crimes for a book that never was. Her struggle with literary stardom and this aborted nonfiction project—a shot at redemption after her failure to produce a follow-up to Mockingbird—are the focus of the second half of Furious Hours.
Razor-sharp insights and vivid writing make this the best of this year’s best true crime. To say Cep has a way with words is an understatement. Maxwell was always immaculately dressed, she notes, even after working shifts at a dusty quarry to make ends meet. “He excelled,” she writes in a neat piece of foreshadowing, “at erasing the evidence of what he had done.” The rustic cabin where Lee stayed while attending the trial of Maxwell’s murderer was “equal parts pine, tin, and screen.” Cep’s narration cuts to the bone. “Violence has a way of destroying everything but itself,” she says of Maxwell’s first victim, his wife Mary Lou. “Apart from her birth, marriage, and death certificates, the only official record of her existence is a disturbingly thorough description of the condition of her body at the time of her death.”
These riveting accounts of killers and victims prove that murder casts a long shadow, and creates shock waves that reverberate long after the bodies are buried.
Dean Jobb’s award-winning Empire of Deception recreates the audacious 1920s swindle of Chicago con man Leo Koretz. His new book tells the true story of Victorian-era serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who murdered as many as ten people in Chicago, England and Canada (coming in 2021 from Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada). Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb