A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger
|A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger
|Category: True Crime
|Reviewer: Sue Magee
|Summary: The story of the Boston Strangler and his association with the Junger family along with a snapshot of American society with all its racial tensions in the early ninetteen sixties is highly recommended by The Bookbag.
|Date: May 2007
|Publisher: Harper Perennial
Back in the early nineteen sixties President Kennedy was in the White House and his home city was being terrorised by a man who raped and murdered women in their own homes. He came to be known as The Boston Strangler. Sebastian Junger developed an interest in the case because of a chance connection with his own family.
In the autumn of 1962 when Junger was not yet a year old his mother looked out of the window to see two men staring intently at the house. She went to ask what they wanted and discovered that the elder of the two men had actually constructed the house in Maine and it was then shipped to Belmont. Ellen Junger wanted an artist's studio building on to the back of the house and asked if the men would like to bid for the work, which they did and won the contract. Three men worked on the site and when it was completed one of the men took a photograph of Junger, sitting on his mother's knee and behind them, Floyd Wiggins, who built the original house and the handyman, Al DeSalvo. History knows him better as the Boston Strangler.
When I opened A Death in Belmont up I worried that it might be another 'my family's chance encounter with notoriety' book, but it's as far removed from that as it's possible to be. Whilst the studio was being built Bessie Goldberg was raped and murdered in her home in Belmont, just a few streets away from the Junger home. Local people immediately made the connection with the Boston Strangler, but the police were convinced that the murderer was Roy Smith, a black man who had been cleaning the Goldberg house.
What follows is a frightening portrait of America in the early nineteen sixties, with all its racial tensions and prejudices. Roy Smith stood trial for the rape and murder of Bessie Goldberg against the background of the assassination of President Kennedy and was convicted despite the flimsiness of the evidence against him. There's a stark portrait of racism at all levels of society with fascinating expositions of how this operated within the prison system and the effect it might have on whether or not an individual would admit to a crime for which someone else was serving a sentence.
Junger has the pacing of the book to a fine art. The story itself has all the impact of a first-class detective story but is far more satisfying because this is fact. There's information there too, with digressions about the different types of murder and homicide and how the distinctions came to be made as well as the application of 'reasonable doubt' in a court of law. The knowledge is essential to follow the story, but not over-detailed to the extent of becoming boring.
What made the book for me was the fact that there are no hard and fast conclusions. Did Roy Smith murder Bessie Goldberg? My instinct is that he didn't, but there's no positive proof either way. Was Al DeSalvo the Boston Strangler? It's a mark of how far forensic science has come in the intervening years. Had DNA testing been available the questions could have been answered beyond reasonable doubt.
Few books stand rereading, but this will be one of them. The writing is tight and flows well, with barely a wasted word, but above all it left me with a lot to think about and a wider knowledge than I started with. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.
If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Jack of Jumps by David Seabrook, which also deals with the murder of women during the same period but in London. Just a warning though - this book is marred by a suggestion that a living person is guilty of the unsolved murders and is not up to the standard of A Death in Belmont.
You can read more book reviews or buy A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger at Amazon.com.
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THIS WAS AN AWESOME BOOK!