Mark Bowden is a gem in narrative journalism. I’ve so often been sucked into reading a longread, that kind of lose-track-of-time story, and see it’s his after finally checking the byline. He’s a wonderfully compelling storyteller and a thorough, detail-oriented journalist.
In The Last Stone, he revisits the recently solved disappearance of the Lyon sisters – Katherine and Sheila, two young girls gone missing from a shopping mall in a DC suburb of Maryland in 1975. It’s one of those nightmarish, warn-your-children cases that haunted the town of Wheaton, becoming infamous in the area. It’s also a case that he followed and reported on early in his career. It haunted Bowden too as it remained unsolved over the intervening decades.
As a green, twenty-three-year-old reporter, I tried to see the Lyon case as a story, my first chance to write front-page news. The people I wrote about were subjects, and tragedy a thing that happened to others. But the Lyons were people I liked, even admired. I could not witness their pain dispassionately.
The case was such a scary one because it’s much rarer that missing children are taken by strangers. It tends to be someone related or somehow close to the child. But after clearing that possibility in this case, no other option remained, stoking fear and uncertainty in the wake of the girls’ mysterious disappearance.
Of the thousands of missing children cases reported each year, those involving children taken by a stranger number only one-hundredth of one percent – on average about one hundred cases a year in the United States, a number that has changed little for as long as such statistics have been kept.
38 years later, in 2013, a team of cold case detectives looking at the evidence decided to re-interview a man named Lloyd Welch, then in prison, thinking that he could provide information about the suspect they were then focusing on. Welch had come forward shortly after the Lyons’ disappearance with a story about how he’d witnessed another man abducting the children. He was questioned at the time and eventually let go.
But as the detectives listened to his story in 2013, it became clear there was more substance to it than the original detectives had believed. In fact, it was clear Welch had done what so many offenders do – found a way to insert himself into the investigation. They abandoned their original theory and honed in on subtly trying to learn more from him without scaring him into shutting up entirely. They continued questioning him using deceptive tactics to get at his ever-changing story from different angles, always in the hopes of extracting some new bit of information. It’s made even harder by the fluid nature of his storytelling, where one fact might be hidden in an otherwise fictional story.
Maddening as Lloyd was – he was like a fairy-tale goblin guarding a treasure, speaking in riddles – they needed to keep him engaged.
What eventually emerges are the outlines of a narrative revealing the fate of the Lyons sisters. Welch’s story leads them to the clan of his extended family in rural Virginia, a gothically surreal bunch that unfortunately fulfill some ugly Appalachian stereotypes, namely the incest one. It’s an eerie, unsettling glimpse into a part of the country that gets a bad rap that’s reinforced here, though it’s hard to feel sympathy for this troubling family who have kept a lot of dark secrets within their insular community.
They also provide great opportunity for Bowden’s writing to shine through in what’s primarily a dialogue-based narrative. His description of Edna, Lloyd’s stepmother, for example: “A deceptively simple, mean country woman in her eighties, sharp as the cut rim of a tin can and prone to didactic and random biblical quotation.”
The detectives are as duplicitous as Lloyd himself. It’s a bit uncomfortable reading sometimes, having read a lot about false confessions that were coerced, and it’s easy to see where such tactics could go tragically wrong when applied to a different mind.
Still, this is the flip side of this type of interrogation, where deceptive tactics actually produced the desired psychological effect on a guilty person and resolved a painful cold case, giving the family at least some peace of mind that the guilty person has finally been held to account.
What’s most interesting is seeing an investigation up close, with large amounts of dialogue extracted directly from interrogations, and Bowden providing explanatory commentary alongside it. He was allowed access to interview recordings, and detectives explain their methodology and reasoning as the investigation processes, making this a uniquely in-depth look at interrogative procedures and cold case work, including every setback and solution as they occur.
Soon after I started working on this book, when Dave told me how liars lie about the big things but flesh out their fiction with the truth, I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. This story illustrates his point. To discern the truth, an investigator (or writer) must interpret testimony.
But it feels unsatisfying and somewhat frustrating. It’s still not entirely clear what exactly happened, and how (I don’t mean the gory details, of which there are more than enough suggested already, but something that could be more helpful, like how Welch managed to convince two children to leave the mall with him and control them both, an oddity he never sufficiently explains), and who exactly was involved. Some of his relatives knew something, and some helped him dispose of significant items, but things remain hazy.
The truth is in there somewhere, but the resolution is sad and awful. It’s page-turning because of Bowden’s masterful storytelling. Even when he steps back and lets dialogue carry the book, his skilled hand in the construction is evident and it’s impossible not to be fascinated and invested in how it plays out. An appealing and compelling look at a mystery as it unravels and how detective work operates from the inside. 3.75/5
The Last Stone
by Mark Bowden
published April 2, 2019 by Grove Atlantic
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.