The child in the picture is Sebastian Junger, seen here with his mother; the man standing right behind her is Al DeSalvo, who had just finished a carpentry job for the family. The day before the photo had been taken, Boston resident Bessie Goldbberg had been murdered; a man called Roy Smith was charged and convicted of the crime. Just two years later, the Jungers’ friendly carpenter confessed to being the Boston Strangler: he admitted to the murder of eight women, though not to killing Bessie Goldberg.
“It’s not every writer who can use a baby picture of himself with a confessed serial killer as the frontispiece of his latest book. Junger grew up believing that Smith was probably the scapegoat for DeSalvo. In “A Death in Belmont,” he re-examines Goldberg’s murder and the Boston stranglings, probing what he sees as an essential connection between them and troubling ambiguities about Smith’s and DeSalvo’s respective culpabilities. The result is a riveting — but controversial — mix of personal history, murder mystery and cultural record. It is also a fascinating legal primer on race and justice in America.”
Junger’s theory, that Smith may not have been the real murderer, is controversial. he was at the receiving end of vociferous criticism when he did a book reading in Portland recently, and Leah Goldberg, Bessie Goldberg’s daughter, posted her views protesting Junger’s findings on the Amazon page for A Death in Belmont. (The debate between friends of the Goldbergs and defenders of Junger went back and forth for a while.)
Popular nonfiction, of the kind Junger produces so expertly, tries to construct a narrative that emulates fiction by playing down coincidences and emphasizing connections. In real life, perfect storms are the rare exception, while in fiction they are the rule. To write a seamless nonfiction narrative, however, a perfect storm is desirable. If it has, in fact, occurred, as it did with the northeaster of 1991, that is fine. But 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.
If you’re curious, here’s a look at how another controversial non-fiction work about murder was received when it came out. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood set the bar for future authors, from John Berendt to Junger, though Capote was dealing with facts, not hypotheses.