No offense to the cozy, chamomile-scented pleasures of curling up with a good novel, but ours is an age of nonfiction. Just look at the idiot box, where ripped-from-the-headlines procedurals dominate the ratings by fetishizing forensic minutiae. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but these days it’s a lot more popular, too. If you trace this trend back to its source, you’ll find two books from the late ’90s: Jon Krakauer’s Everest thriller Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s deep-sea tragedy The Perfect Storm. Both were publishing phenomena. And both turned their authors into literary celebrities who never had to pick up a reporter’s notebook again.
With his limestone jaw and knack for posing for photos without a shirt, Junger is an attractive target for critics. He might as well have a bull’s-eye on his ripped abs. But as A Death in Belmont shows, he’s also a hell of a storyteller. In the fall of 1962, when Junger was 1, his parents hired three men to build an addition to their home in Belmont, Mass. One of them, a blue-collar fireplug with a pompadour and an easy smile, was Albert DeSalvo, who later confessed to being the Boston Strangler. A photo taken at the time shows Junger’s mother holding her infant son, smiling at the camera alongside DeSalvo and another worker. It’s a haunting image — the kind of random collision of time and place that leads one to believe in fate.
While DeSalvo was working on the Jungers’ home, a 62-year-old housewife named Bessie Goldberg was raped and strangled one mile away. It was the first homicide ever recorded in the well-to-do Boston suburb. A black man named Roy Smith, who’d been hired to clean the Goldberg residence that day, seemed fit-to-order as a suspect. ”A black man was not a common sight in Belmont in 1963,” writes Junger, ”and virtually every good citizen who had seen him walking down Pleasant Street that afternoon remembered him.” From the get-go, something felt wrong about the case against Smith. Still, it took a jury just one afternoon to convict him.
The notoriously grisly trail of female victims left by the Boston Strangler isn’t exactly untrod turf. But then Junger adds another twist of fate, describing how DeSalvo tried to lure his mother into her basement one afternoon. She stayed upstairs, only later realizing how close she came to becoming victim No. 10. A lesser storyteller might have spun this chilling coincidence into a first-person story about his family’s brush with a killer. But Junger’s more interested in guilt, innocence, and the role race plays in determining either. If there’s a nit to pick, it’s that Junger seems easily distracted. He veers off on detours (although impeccably reported ones) that tend to stall the book’s momentum. In the end, you can’t help feeling that A Death in Belmont might have made a better magazine article than a 266-page book.