So, it’s been three weeks since I last wrote a blog post. I think this is the longest I’ve gone without posting anything since 746 Books started!
I blame a number of factors. I got some difficult health news during the last week of Reading Ireland Month and that dampened my enthusiasm greatly. I also think I needed a little bit of a break after Ireland Month anyway as it was pretty full on. Add to that the fact that I just could not settle on a book to read! I started five or so books and gave up on each one very quickly as they just weren’t grabbing my attention.
I finally decided to give Death in Belmont a go for a couple of reasons. I’ve been watching (and loving) The Jinx – the gripping HBO true crime series and also had really enjoyed Sebastian Junger’s work on his documentary movie Restrepo where he and the late war photographer Tim Heatherington spent a year in Afghanistan on assignment for Vanity Fair, embedded with the Second Platoon of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team of the U.S. Army.
With Restrepo and his previous book The Perfect Storm (adapted for screen also); Junger has certainly proved himself to be a talented reporter with a particular gift for engrossing narrative. He brings things closer to home in A Death in Belmont which has as its starting point a very intriguing set of coincidences.
In March of 1963, Sebastian Junger was a toddler, growing up in Belmont, a pleasant suburb of Boston, – safe, affluent and relatively crime free. Until that is an elderly housewife named Bessie Goldberg is found raped and strangled in a crime that seemed straight away to be the work of the Boston Strangler, who was wrecking havoc with his savage murderous spree in the city at large.
The starting point of the book is the fact that Al DeSalvo, the man who eventually confessed to being the Strangler, had been working at Junger’s house on the day of Bessie Goldberg’s murder and had even posed for a photograph with the baby Sebastian and his mother.
On one occasion, he tried to lure Junger’s mother into her basement while she was alone in the house with him, but she refused. DeSalvo confessed to 13 murders, 10 of which involved the victims being strangled with their own stockings. De Salvo believed he would be found insane and confessed on the grounds that he could sell his story to the press for money to support his wife and children. Neither came to pass, and once convicted and sent to prison, he recanted his confession. He was stabbed to death in 1973 in mysterious circumstances and no one was ever convicted for his murder, although it was rumoured that his death was retaliation for the conviction of Roy Smith for the murder of Bessie Goldberg 10 years earlier.
Roy Smith is the other player in this unnerving, but ultimately unsatisfying story. Smith was a black man, a petty criminal, who had been given a job cleaning Bessie Goldberg’s house on the day of her murder and after a brief trial, was sentenced to life in prison for her murder. He always maintained his innocence even after his release and Junger clearly suggests that Smith was a convenient scapegoat for what he sees as a Strangler murder.
Junger does a good job of putting the lives of Bessie Goldberg, Al DeSalvo and Roy Smith into historical and social context and presenting an America where racism was rife, life was hard for those of a certain class and a President had just been shot. However, the book sets out to me a mystery with high stakes and a series of coincidences and theories don’t live up to the initial premise.
It is clear that Junger needs the reader to believe several things for the narrative tension to be maintained. Firstly that Bessie Goldberg was a victim of the Boston Strangler, then that DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler and could have conceivably attacked Junger’s mother and finally that Roy Smith did not kill Bessie Goldberg. If all these theories were fact, this would be an explosive book, but they aren’t.
DeSalvo’s confessions have always been in doubt and the lack of evidence meant that although always been known as the Boston Strangler, he was never tried for those crimes, but jailed for other previous violent crimes. His body was exhumed after his death and DNA evidence only linked him to one of the Strangler murders. Despite confessing to all the killings, he never confessed to Bessie Goldberg’s.
Roy Smith never confessed to Bessie’s murder either, but questionable as his conviction was, he was at the scene prior to her death and evaded police afterwards. Junger goes to great lengths to cast Smith in a sympathetic light, even playing down an incident when Smith pulled the trigger at a shop worker’s head only for the gun to misfire. There is no doubt that for a black man in 1960s America, the chances of a fair and impartial trial were slim, but neither does Junger look in any detail at other possibilities for Bessie’s death, including the suggestion made by Smith’s defence team that her husband may have been responsible.
Then there is the dramatic device of placing Junger and his family in personal danger. Was Junger’s own mother at risk? On the occasion that DeSalvo asked her to come down to the basement with his, she said, with hindsight that
He had this intense look in his eyes, a strange kind of burning in his eyes, as if he was almost trying to hypnotise me.
Yet, strangely, she never told anyone about the incident at the time, neither her husband, nor DeSalvo’s boss and in fact allowed DeSalvo to continue to work unsupervised in her home. Possibly if any of us thought we had shared our intimate space with a killer, we would re-evaluate many of or dealings with them. However, without this incident, there really is no story here to tell. The story doesn’t link together well if you don’t go along with Junger’s theory and thus there is a loss of narrative tension. What if DeSalvo wasn’t the Boston Strangler? What if Roy Smith did kill Bessie Goldberg? What if a third person killed Bessie Goldberg? What if Ellen Junger’s reaction to DeSalvo wasn’t one of fear at the time? Any one of these and a number of other questions can unravel the book like loose knitting. In an interview, Junger has said
I literally wake up every day thinking something different about all of these issues, Smith did it, Smith didn’t do it, DeSalvo never hurt a flea, DeSalvo is a serial murderer. There is no fixed point in my mind. I wish there were.
This is the problem with the book. The initial drama cannot be maintained. When reviewing A Death in Belmont for the New York Times, Alan Dershowitz states that
When a writer has a stake in playing down coincidences and emphasizing connections, his work must be read with caution, especially when it contains no footnotes or endnotes…..Nonfiction must be about actual truth, not about how coincidences could lead to a deeper truth
I’m inclined to agree with Dershowitz. As the tension petered out I was left ultimately disappointed with the ‘thriller’ aspect of the book, however, Junger does write with a clear and strong prose style and is a master at exploring the racism and violent tensions at the heart of the mid 20th century in America.
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!