The Boston Strangler was the prototype for modern serial killers. He was also more fearsome than those who would follow in his bloody footsteps in the impression of invincibility that he cast through his community in the early '60s, before he was caught, or, more precisely, until Albert De Salvo was arrested and the terror came to an end. Doubt nonetheless lingers over whether De Salvo was in fact the perpetrator of 13 murders ascribed to the Strangler.
But another mystery haunts this case, involving a petty criminal named Roy Smith. Smith was convicted of killing Bessie Goldberg, an older woman who had hired him to do odd jobs at her home in Belmont, a suburb of Boston. Her death was identical in most respects to those attributed to the Strangler: She was choked from behind with a stocking, with no signs of protracted struggle, which suggested that the killer had somehow persuaded her to let him into her home. The jury's guilty verdict sent Smith to prison for life yet the Boston Strangler remained active for months to come.
Meticulously, precisely, Sebastian Junger dissects the roles that Smith and De Salvo did or did not play in this drama in A Death in Belmont. Other characters emerge, none more compelling than Junger's mother, who had a chilling encounter with De Salvo at the height of Strangler hysteria. Junger, whose previous works include The Perfect Storm, writes dispassionately, letting the narrative build its own momentum, unburdened by lurid, tabloid-oriented excess. A Death in Belmont, then, is primarily an intellectual exercise, in which the facts are enough to rivet the reader's attention even as the author's lines of inquiry weave elaborate patterns of examination.
The book ends with a series of unanswered questions, which point toward a different kind of wisdom, based on broader issues of right and wrong. It is a powerful and honest thing to end a book like this with something that feels more like a beginning. Robert L. Doerschuk is a former editor of Musician magazine.