Detecting Chaos

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, by Deborah Halber, (Simon & Schuster), 304 pages

Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew is another book that falls into the I-wanted-to-like-it-more-than-I-did category. Like a great many readers, I’ve been looking for and devouring non-fiction about forensic detection—particularly forensic anthropology—for at least the past ten years. As a result, I was delighted to receive a digital ARC for review. The Skeleton Crew has a great premise: explore the work of amateurs attempting find identities for unidentified remains.

Interesting possibilities, yes?

Unfortunately, these possibilities are never realized. Instead, we get a rambling, digressive depiction of a few cases and individuals, but never a book with a clear purpose. Halber attempts to hold the book together by returning periodically to a single case, but all this does is spread out that particular narrative in a way that confuses and frustrates readers.

The prose itself is turgid, thick with descriptive detail that doesn’t always make sense. Three examples:

Livingston, Tennessee, is plopped like the yolk of a sunny-side-up egg in a valley roughly midway between Nashville,home of country music, and Knoxville, birthplace of Mountain Dew and the Dempster-Dumpster.

In the yearbook’s head-and-shoulder portraits, the girls’ big hair fell in bangs curling like spiders’ legs over their foreheads.

The day I met him, his dark suit, crisp white shirt with a monogrammed cuff, and sharp tie were set off by mother-of-pearl cufflinks in rich blues and greens—almost as reflective as his bald head—that glinted as he offered me his hand.

What one wants from a book like this is a sense of the puzzle of identifying remains and how it’s solved—the thinking and step-by-step actions of individuals who have succeeded in this work. That material is buried in The Skeleton Crew here and there, but like the bodies these amateurs work with, it’s hard to identify.

July 01 2014 06:41 am | Uncategorized

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