Hindsight is 20/20
By Dean Jobb
A rash of Depression-era kidnappings. The unsolved murders of Indigenous women along a secluded stretch of Canadian highway. An enterprising thief who specialized in stealing falcons and their eggs. And a collection of stories that explores recent real-life crimes and our enduring fascination with the genre. These are some of the best true crime books of 2020.
In 2010, customs agents at the Birmingham airport searched a suspected smuggler and made a puzzling discovery. Under Jeffrey Lendrum’s clothing, they found more than a dozen eggs strapped to his body. They were duck eggs, he insisted, and a physiotherapist had recommended he carry his fragile cargo in this strange fashion to keep his muscles tense, to ease his back pain.
It was nonsense, of course. Detective Andy McWilliam of the United Kingdom’s National Wildlife Crime Unit was called in and confirmed they were peregrine falcon eggs. Thirteen contained live embryos. Lendrum’s destination, Dubai, made it all but certain he was a key player in a lucrative, species-threatening, illegal trade in wild birds of prey, with the hatchlings destined for ultra-rich collectors in the Middle East.
In The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird (Simon & Schuster), Berlin-based writer Joshua Hammer uses Lendrum’s capture to expose “a thriving black market for the birds, driven by wealthy enthusiasts who believe that falcons stolen from nests are innately superior to those bred in captivity.” It’s a wild ride through the shadowy world of obsessives who collect and sell the eggs of rare birds, complete with perilous raids on treetop and cliffside nests and brazen encounters with unsuspecting border guards.
Framing the story is Lendrum’s lifelong career as gathering and selling eggs (he got his start as a young man growing up in Africa) and McWilliam’s determination to protect endangered species and clip the wings (pardon the pun) of this one-man threat to the natural world. Lendrum was a key player in the illegal trade, supplying wealthy Arab collectors with birds to be trained for hunting and racing. The going rate for the most sought-after eggs? As much as $400,000 each.
Hammer meticulously recreates Lendrum’s crimes and McWilliam’s efforts to bring him to justice—and takes his own journey to remote locales to walk in Lendrum’s footsteps and, eventually, to meet the falcon thief in person—in this fascinating, globetrotting howdunit.
Franklin Roosevelt launched his presidency in 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression, by famously assuring the millions who had lost their jobs and savings that “the only thing we have to fear is . . . . fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” But Americans had plenty to fear in the Dirty Thirties—bank robbers, gangsters and other trigger-happy Public Enemies, and most of all, a surge in kidnappings for ransom.
The snatching of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s young son from the family’s New Jersey estate in 1932 may have been the most sensational crime of the decade, but former New York Times journalist David Stout has dug into the newspapers of the era to resurrect scores of forgotten abductions. “There were so many kidnappings in Depression-era America,” he writes in The Kidnap Years: The Astonishing True History of the Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic That Shook Depression-Era America (Sourcebooks), “that newspapers listed the less sensational cases in small type, the way real estate transactions or baseball trades were rendered.”
Dr. Isaac Kelley was lured from his St. Louis home on a bogus house call and held for a week before being released, apparently with no ransom paid. “I wonder who’s next on the list,” he mused after his captors handed him over to a reporter who was grateful for the scoop. A teenage heir to the Budweiser beer empire was snatched from a limousine by a failed businessman who was short on cash as well as kidnapping skills—he never got around to demanding a ransom before relatives freed the boy.
Not all abductions had a happy ending. Many hostages were murdered—thirteen nationwide in 1931, according to one survey—and many victims who were freed were traumatized by their ordeals. Some kidnappers were paid staggering sums but in one Wisconsin case, relatives faced with a $150,000 ransom demand easily negotiated the figure down to a modest $6,000.
The so-called Lindbergh Law, enacted after the Lindbergh baby’s murder, made it a federal crime to transport kidnap victims across state lines and, as Stout shows, catapulted J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to the forefront of law enforcement. Hoover may have condemned the perpetrators as “sewer rats,” but kidnappers and the fear they spread helped to build his crime-fighting empire.
Stout, a novelist and author of previous works of true crime, reconstructs these long-overlooked cases in rich detail, mining newspaper accounts and interviews with descendants of some of the victims. While he can be an intrusive narrator at times, injecting his own biting assessments or diverting readers to footnoted asides, The Kidnap Years is a captivating (pardon a second pun) journey into the crime that helped to define the Depression era.
When a young tree planter named Nicole Hoar disappeared in 2002 from a community located on a remote highway in northern British Columbia, a massive search was organized. There was a flood of media coverage. A reward was offered for information. Yet when Ramona Wilson, Delphine Nikal, and Roxanne Thiara had disappeared in the same area in the early 1990s, the searches had been perfunctory and had generated much less publicity. The reason for the vastly different responses? Hoar was white. The other young women were Indigenous.
As Canadian journalist and first-time author Jessica McDiarmid’s investigation reveals in Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (Atria Books/Doubleday Canada), Canada’s unequal treatment of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women is “a national tragedy—and travesty.” Indigenous women are six times more likely to be murdered; racism within police forces and the justice system make it less likely their killers will ever be identified or prosecuted. Official statistics put the number of victims at 1,200; Indigenous groups contend that’s barely a third of the true death toll.
The book’s title refers to a 450-mile stretch of highway where it’s estimated at least thirty Indigenous women have died or gone missing. “The Highway of Tears is a lonesome road that runs across a lonesome land,” writes McDiarmid, who grew up in the area and remembers some of the desperate searches for missing young women. “Those who disappear in this place are not easily found.”
McDiarmid won the trust of Indigenous families still mourning the loss of a daughter, sister, or mother. She captures the trauma of unhealed wounds, the frustration of unheard demands for justice and accountability. She exposes the region’s ugly legacy of racism and how the police and child-welfare system have failed its Indigenous communities—and, by extension, Indigenous peoples across the country.
The Canadian government launched a national inquiry into the murders and disappearances and has promised to stamp out the systemic racism that has led to Indigenous people being “over-policed and under-protected”—more prone to arrest and imprisonment and more likely to be victims of crime. McDiarmid’s deeply researched, searing indictment of the prejudice and official indifference toward the lost women of the Highway of Tears suggests there’s a long road ahead before there is justice for all.
“Even as children, we are drawn to the puzzle of crime narratives,” Patrick Radden Keefe, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the true crime bestseller Say Nothing, notes in his introduction to Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession (Ecco). “We are hardwired to be fascinated by danger, and by the dark potential of other humans.” New York writer and crime fiction anthologist Sarah Weinman, who brilliantly blended true crime with literary analysis in her 2018 book The Real Lolita, edited this collection of some of the best work by a new generation of true crime writers.
The thirteen stories, all published within the last five years, delve into sensational murders, elaborate frauds, questionable forensics, and our fascination with accounts of macabre crimes, past and present. One contributor, academic and author Alice Bolin, offers a thoughtful essay on why true crime—from the serious and “highbrow” to the sensational and exploitative—is so popular. “I suspect the new true-crime obsession has something to do with the massive, terrifying problems we face as a society,” she writes. “Focusing on one case, bearing down on its minutiae and discovering who is to blame, serves as both an escape and a means of feeling in control, giving us an arena where justice is possible.”
Perhaps the most gripping story is New York Times Magazine writer Pamela Colloff’s “The Reckoning,” an investigation into the legacy of a 1966 shooting spree at the University of Texas, when a sniper killed sixteen people and wounded thirty-one more. Her focus is how the shocking crime—tragically, a harbinger of many campus and school shootings to come—scarred the life of Claire Wilson, who was shot but survived. A teenager and eight months pregnant at the time, Wilson lost her boyfriend and unborn child that day; Colloff offers a heartbreaking portrait of one victim’s struggles, courage and determination after her life was turned upside down.
Weinman included a story of her own, about a woman who drifted into the role of accomplice to a bank robbery. Her story became the basis for a movie and Weinman explores how real-life crimes inspire fiction and leave their mark on popular culture. Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, contributed another highlight of the collection, on a smooth-talking serial con man who used an online dating service to meet and scam a dozen new girlfriends out of as much as $1 million. He evaded justice until some of his victims joined forces to put him behind bars.
“True crime is having a moment,” Weinman notes at the outset of the collection. “But then, one could say true crime has been having a moment for more than three centuries.” Judging by the quality and scope of these stories, today’s true crime moment will be in good hands for years to come.
Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada), the true story of a brazen 1920s Chicago swindler. His next book, to be released in July 2021, recreates the crimes of serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who terrorized Victorian Era London and murdered four people in the Chicago area in the 1880s. You can follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb