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Books: A Murderer in the Home

5 minute read
Lev Grossman

A photograph from the sleepy suburb of Belmont, Mass., circa 1963 shows two people who would later be famous, although nobody had any idea at the time. One is a tiny baby sitting in his mother’s lap. The other is a smiling, tough-looking, pompadoured fellow standing behind her. The baby would grow up to be Sebastian Junger, the mega-selling author of The Perfect Storm, the true story of a fishing boat lost at sea. The smiling guy was a handyman named Albert DeSalvo. History would come to know him as the Boston Strangler.

As coincidences go, this is a corker. At the time, Junger’s mom was having a studio built behind their house, and DeSalvo was there as a workman. And there’s another wrinkle, one that might or might not have been a coincidence. During the period DeSalvo was working at the Jungers’, a 62-year-old woman was killed in a house down the street. Her name was Bessie Goldberg, and she was raped and strangled–precisely the Strangler’s modus operandi. But DeSalvo was never charged with the crime. Instead a black man named Roy Smith, who had cleaned Goldberg’s house that day, was convicted of her murder. Did the police get the wrong man?

That is the story Junger tells in his new book, A Death in Belmont (W.W. Norton; 320 pages), and that is the question he tries to answer. “My journalism initially took me overseas a lot, and it took me a while to see the amazing story that I had right back at home,” he says in a phone call en route to his home in New York City. Junger is by trade a prowler of battlefields and wildernesses, and his placid, well-heeled hometown was not the most obvious starting point. “I liked the idea partly because it was the exact opposite kind of story from The Perfect Storm,” he says. “It’s not an adventure story. There are no 100-ft. waves. And I just frankly wanted to know what happened.”

Goldberg’s death was–and still is–the only homicide ever to take place in Belmont. When the police wrote it up, they had to use forms marked TRAFFIC BUREAU REPORT. The cops picked up Smith the next day, and although he maintained his innocence and although the evidence against him was entirely circumstantial, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Smith was 35 at the time, a drifter and a drinker with a penchant but not much aptitude for petty crime. Nothing in his history, however, suggests that he was capable of doing what was done to Goldberg.

DeSalvo, on the other hand, was a nightmare straight out of Thomas Harris. Born into a violent home in a rough neighborhood, he was a perfect storm of another kind–handsome enough to talk his way into women’s homes, sick enough to rape and kill, smart enough to cover his tracks afterward. “All I know is that something would happen and I would have my arms around their necks,” he told an investigator. (Junger makes extensive and creepily effective use of police transcripts.) DeSalvo sometimes posed his victims after the crime for shock value and left the victim’s underwear knotted in a decorative bow around her neck.

In DeSalvo’s dark world, Junger’s clear, beautifully reasonable writing is the literary equivalent of night-vision goggles. In The Perfect Storm Junger had a great story to work with; in A Death in Belmont there is no central thread. He’s navigating a maze of shadows, and you can see all the more clearly what an enormously skillful prose artist he is. Absent a pulse-pounding narrative, Junger entrances the reader by picking out small details–like the score of the kickball game being played in front of Goldberg’s house when she died–that give the events he’s describing an enthralling vividness and resonance and clarity.

DeSalvo eventually confessed to 13 murders, but he always denied having killed Goldberg. So who did? He and Smith have since died, and any DNA evidence from the crime scene is long gone. There is, ultimately, no way to know, and Junger never tries to force a certainty he doesn’t feel. “About halfway through, I realized, There’s no way. I’m not going to prove this,” he says. “At first I was sort of depressed by that–Oh, God, no one is going to read this book because I can’t prove anything. And then I realized, No, no, if you could prove something, that would be the kiss of death to this book because no one would finish it. They would read long enough to know what you were intending to do, and then they’d put it down. What saved me was this idea that I was going to turn the readers into a jury. If you don’t know, you just turn to the readers and ask a question and let them decide.”

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