“Lost Girls” is a grim trip to the underbelly of prostitution and drugs and desperation. And serial killers. Robert Kolker draws intimate portraits of women on the economic edge of society—Maureen, Melissa, Shannon, Megan and Amber. He gives them identities, families, cares and concerns. He invites us into their worlds and we meet real individuals with real hopes and dreams. These are not quick, newspaper-abbreviated glimpses. Shannan Gilbert on stage as an eighth-grader, in her middle school’s production of Annie. Melissa working as a stylist at The Continental Beauty School. Megan, “moon-faced and bubbly and blond,” dying to cut loose on the floor of the roller skate arena. And so on. Real people.
The first half of “Lost Girls” draws out detailed portraits of these women and their slow journey down into the shady world of Craigslist ads, pimps, fast cash and drugs. From all across the Eastern United States, these women end up, ultimately, in and around New York. Kolker shows us how money is made—the risks, the scary encounters and how drugs create a black hole of delusion. Even if you’ve got a plan to make your life better, you might get sucked down to the gutter.
The second half of “Lost Girls” looks at the police investigation into the series of disappearances and, when the bodies start turning up in and around Oak Beach along the southern shore of Long Island, murder. In fact, the unusual Oak Beach community and its peculiar denizens and unusual circumstances become a key part of the book. In a way, “Lost Girls” felt in parts like a mash-up of “In Cold Blood” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Is Oak Beach and the endless vacant shoreline around Gilgo State Park a dumping ground, or is it possible the murderer lives in the midst of this small, offbeat community? Kolker rings doorbells and asks questions that would have left my knees knocking. He keeps his role to a minimum; rarely puts himself on stage on the story. He’s there in the story but mostly focuses on the victims and the circle of friends who provoke the bureaucracy to keep looking for answers.
In the second half of “Lost Girls,” Kolker asks whether the police (society?) care enough about victims from the underclasses. Some of the police effort is sparked and prompted by family, friends and co-workers of the victims, who organize and pressure the cops to step up the intensity and focus on their work. They form their own little detective crew and start asking hard questions the police should be asking and, of course, we wonder if the police shouldn’t have enough reason to care, with all the body parts and shallow graves. Kolker shows police departments led by individuals with pet theories and personal agendas out of sync with science, evidence or, at the very least, clear thinking.
“With Shannan’s belongings as his first solid clue but still no body, the commissioner wasted no time fitting it into his theory. He said that Shannon was high that night, and paranoid, and she ran into the marsh, seeing the lights of the cars from Ocean Parkway beyond it. But in her condition, he said, Shannan had no concept that those cars were as far as a quarter mile away, and since she didn’t know the area, she had no idea that she was about to fling herself into a dense, murky marsh that even the neighbors avoided. So, (Suffolk County Police Commissioner Robert) Dormer concluded, Shannan tripped—most likely in a drainage ditch—and drowned.”
And then comes the paragraph that only makes sense within the tangled context of this particular, sad story.
“If this was true, it would be amazing, almost poetic irony. First Shannan’s disappearance leads to the discovery of ten other sets of remains, and then the hunt for the serial killer make Shannan’s case so prominent that police have to come back to Oak Beach and search for her. Without the serial-killer case, they might have called for the search for Shannan. But without her, they might never have known there was a serial killer.”
This is a brilliant book. Despite the “unsolved” nature of the case (right there in the tag line of the title), we can draw our own conclusions: the killer is still out there and not enough has been done to figure out who it is. Haunting.