The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest CasesThe Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases by Deborah Halber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle of this book is accurate after a fashion, but a bit misleading. I expected a book about forensic experts, computer hackers, and similar civilians who consult voluntarily for police to solve crimes and bring about arrests and convictions. There is almost none of that. Rather, this book focuses on those people who try to match unidentified human remains with missing persons. It is a crew that quite literally is obsessed with skeletons and partially decomposed bodies. It sounds rather ghoulish and at times it reads that way, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the book for that reason.

The emergence of the Internet into every home allowed the public suddenly to become involved in investigating crimes. There arose a small cadre of individuals who became completely immersed in cases of missing persons, or of unidentified remains. The people with this intense interest were often friends or relatives of the missing person, or someone who came upon the remains. In some cases it was a retired detective or police chief who couldn’t stop thinking about the case they couldn’t crack. Several organizations arose consisting at first of amateurish websites, often competing. These frequently drew wackos and indeed, the police often called these civilians Doe nuts. The website owners or adherents would trash or troll other sites or claim that someone stole “their” case. The unidentified remains also acquired colorful names in many cases: The Lady of the Dunes, Tent Girl, Old Joe.

Make no mistake. Despite the creepiness of the obsession, these amateurs have indeed in many cases helped identify remains by matching them with missing persons. The word closure seems trite, but it is real for those heartbroken about a missing child and whose decades-long suffering is ended. For many, giving the relative a proper burial and real headstone is enough to bring peace. Many of the web sleuths, as they came to be known, have genuine skills appreciated by enlightened detectives. One woman had incredible facial recognition abilities. Others often memorize astounding amounts of trivia about particular cases.

Since this is a book review, not a critique of those who pursue this cause, I’ll stop there and simply say the book is fascinating. I kept wanting to get back to it to find out what happened next. If you have a queasy stomach about such things perhaps you should skip this one, as the descriptions are sometimes graphic, but there are no gory pictures.

This is not to say the book was without flaws. The author and editor made some odd and irritating stylistic choices. The clothing, home, and physical description is detailed ad nauseam for every single person the author met, no matter how irrelevant. Everyone reminded her of some actor or celebrity. Every story is chopped up into non-sequential pieces. A chapter may begin describing how person A finds body B. Then it turns to A’s personal biography, then to the police detective or coroner C who took over the investigation. Next it jumps to Person D, the web sleuth who became obsessed with the case, which may be years after the discovery. Then it jumps to B again and tells the story of B’s life before he or she went missing, and all the people associated with B – childhood, family, lovers, and so on decades earlier. Then back to D and how D got interested in web sleuthing, which started with a totally unrelated case of person E. That story is told, then it goes back to A, then B then D then C, and so on for four or five iterations. I wanted to scream at the the author to just tell one story straight through for once, pleeease. Despite these anomalies, I enjoyed the book and appreciate the macabre draw of this sort of web sleuthing and of the good work that has been accomplished. I’m pleased to say that the federal government eventually became involved and the whole endeavor is now largely professionalized, but still uses volunteer web sleuths to good effect. Need a hobby? If you’re stuck in a single-wide in East Podunk with nothing but a PC to entertain you, you too could find this hobby rewarding and you might just help police solve a murder case or help a family put their child to rest after many years. Visit the Doe Network.

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