Amateur Sleuths and the Unidentified

Book review: The Skeleton Crew, by Deborah Halber (Amazon / Book Depository)

Chances are good that you or someone you know has at one point stumbled over a dead body. There are shockingly large numbers of them out there. According to the National Institute of Justice, America is home to tens of thousands of unidentified human remains, with four thousand more turning up every year: intrepid adventurers or athletes who left their IDs at home; victims of accidents and mass disasters; suicides; undocumented immigrants; the homeless; runaway teenagers; victims of serial killers; and those who cast off a former identity, changed names, and left no forwarding address.

Science writer and journalist Deborah Halber takes a look at those tens of thousands of unidentified dead in the U.S. (the actual tally is the subject of some dispute) and the armchair detectives trying to resolve some of them. Beyond some basic facts up front establishing the landscape of missing and unidentified, it’s not a research-heavy book, but rather one focused on the stories and experiences of the people involved. That’s fine, to some extent, but elsewhere I would’ve liked more data. To return to the quote above — “Chances are good that you or someone you know has at one point stumbled over a dead body.” Really? How do you figure? I can’t say that fits for me and mine, I would be interested in seeing something to back that up.

The people she profiles have a mostly different approach than what Billy Jensen advocates in Chase Darkness with Mebut there’s a similar mentality at work. Law enforcement is overworked and understaffed and average citizens with an interest and meticulous research skills can contribute. Using forums like Websleuths, Cold Cases, and the Doe Network, curious people are combing through missing persons databases and attempting, with varying levels of success, to match up biographical and forensic details and give the dead back their names. The people doing this are a diverse and quirky bunch, and it was interesting to learn why they’re drawn to it.

Some of the cases covered have had high profiles — Tent Girl, the Lady of the Dunes — and mysterious elements that heighten interest and intrigue, making it easy to understand why people become fixated on finding answers. Tent Girl, sadly, had become a horror story legend in the Kentucky town where she was found.

Hers is one of the bigger cases examined, and one of the more successful ones actually resolved by an amateur. She was identified 40 years after her death by an obsessive amateur sleuth, and Halber tells her biography and interviews her family. She also covers the story of the man who originally found Tent Girl, and his complex relationship to the attention and fame that accompanied being linked to this case.

Like with Jensen’s book, I was left uneasy about the relationships between law enforcement and citizen sleuths. The methods used here are less involved than what Jensen does — they don’t stray into trying to identify murderers like he often does, only to identify victims, poring over what data is publicly available, so it has less room for things to go wrong, I think. Still, Halber says that “citizens … taking up these cases only serves to exacerbate the already uneasy relationship between cops and civilians.” Others seem more appreciative of the help. This is such an peculiar area that’s increasingly becoming more important as we have more information and ways to use it at our fingertips, no specialist knowledge necessary. There’s not a big exploration of where this is going here, but an interesting foundation nonetheless.

This isn’t necessarily a great book, but I liked it anyway, and I think many true crime readers will feel the same as long as your expectations aren’t high. It’s disorganized — the structure is all of these stories thrown together completely hodge-podge and with a lot of names, dates, and places involved, it can get confusing. But Halber’s tone is light so I didn’t get too invested in it either, just read to learn a little and be entertained. As long as you can focus on a few details to remind yourself which missing person and which sleuth was being discussed, it was entertaining and informative. With tighter editing it could’ve been a much better book, but it’s not bad for what it is either, and the concept of helping the unidentified “go home” is certainly a worthwhile one. 3.5/5

“Everybody needs to go home,” she said doggedly. “Everybody needs to go home.”

The Skeleton Crew:
How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases

by Deborah Halber
published July 1, 2014 by Simon & Schuster

Amazon / Book Depository


9 thoughts on “Amateur Sleuths and the Unidentified

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  1. I had no idea people did this! And I definitely need to know more, so I’m going to have to read this… and theres a fantastic detective series in that whole amateur sleuth missing persons thing, for sure!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yikes! These books are shining a new light on something I didn’t realize was so popular, mind you, with the popularity of true crime podcasts it isn’t surprising either. Is the perspective of law enforcement included in this one? Do the police appreciate the extra ‘help’?


    1. Law enforcement’s perspective isn’t covered too extensively, basically just what I mentioned in the review about their reaction being a mixed bag. It’ll be an interesting to see how it develops in the future!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This does sound fascinating! Someone just commented on my review of Chase Darkness With Me that Jensen ignores a lot of prior citizen sleuthing and it made me want to know more about the forums that are out there. This seems like a good book for that and having read your review, I think I can appreciate it for what it is – although I’m guessing I’ll share your desire for more data!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s such a good point, I didn’t even really consider how Jensen ignored the citizen sleuthing efforts that had already been going on for a long time. Websleuths is especially a rabbit hole, beware! I looked up a couple of cases I was interested in there and there’s SO much material and discussion. It’s both a good and a bad thing, haha.

      I do love a good personal look at stories and not only a data-heavy one but this one skewed too far. Which was a bit odd, because she’s actually a science writer! I get the impression data around a lot of this is hard to come by, since there’s even dispute over the basic number of missing people, but there seemed other areas that could’ve been better researched. And it’s very disorganized, but I thought there was plenty that was interesting enough and it was enjoyable to read. I think you’d like it although temper your expectations accordingly!

      Liked by 1 person

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