Unmasked by Paul Holes

Unmasked: My Life Solving America's Cold CasesUnmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases by Paul Holes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this book very interesting, but some readers will need a strong stomach for the gorier crime scene or autopsy descriptions. Those parts can be skipped. The author was a criminologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. The book is a mix of his personal story and case studies. The personal story is relevant in some ways in that we learn how obsessive he is about the cases, how that and his childhood contributed to his many marital troubles and work stress. But I wasn’t very interested in him as a person, and I doubt most readers are, either. The most interesting sections are discussions of some famous cases, including Jaycee Dugard and the Golden State Killer. I gained a much better understanding of, and appreciation for, the expertise required and employed by criminologists and detectives and the roadblocks they face. The roadblocks include bosses who would rather direct resources to open cases than to cold cases or ones past the statute of limitations, and interagency rivalry. Many departments refuse to share evidence or theories because they want to be the ones who solve and get the headlines, or because they don’t want local residents to know that a serial rapist or murderer may be in their midst.

The writing is unremarkable but workmanlike, which is appropriate for a semibiographical book, and it is clear and easy to follow. There’s a little too much time at the beginning spent on the author’s early life, but it soon focuses on some of the cases he worked. I believe most people will be surprised at how easy it is for a detective to become fixated on an innocent person by interpreting the evidence incorrectly. There is quite a lot about DNA in the latter pages and some of that surprised me, especially the differences between forensic analysis and genealogical analysis. One minor irritant with the book is the author’s apparent high opinion of himself. I was tempted to say something like “It’s not about you,” but to be fair, the title warns you that it is about him, i.e. the life of a criminologist who specialized in cold cases, not solely the cases themselves.

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