Could a series of axe murders around the turn of the century all be connected? Baseball writer Bill James, along with his daughter, investigate in this page turner.
True crime is having its moment right now in America. If you look at the immense popularity of “Serial,” “Making a Murderer,” or “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” in recent years, you’d start to think that the quickest way to go viral is to have the true crime stamp that social media embraces.
Bill James is no stranger to the true crime genre. His first true crime book, Popular Crime, was an unexpected revelation to anyone who only knew him as the guy who revolutionized baseball. For any fan of the true crime genre, Popular Crime is a hard one to top. Still, James and co-author Rachel McCarthy James, his daughter, have found a way with The Man from the Train, in what is sure to be a classic of the genre.
They’ve done that by examining dozens of cold case murders, starting in 1898 and ending in 1912, and identifying a single culprit who they allege is responsible for the lion’s share of these heinous crimes. It might seem that the premise of James’ new book is too unbelievable to be true. But fear not, they completely pull it off.
Over a century ago, the Jameses maintain that a serial killer, who they call The Man From The Train (TMFTT), went around the United States killing entire families with an axe one night at a time. The killer earns that moniker because of his predilection for killing families who lived very close to railroad tracks, one of 33 elements they’ve used to identity long-ago crimes that could have been committed by their suspect. While his shocking crimes caused widespread panic and garnered significant attention, the real killer was never identified or caught. Although, as the authors highlight frequently, that didn’t stop many people from being falsely imprisoned or executed for TMFTT’s crimes.
The brilliance of this book is many-fold, and one key element of it is how Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James built out the structure of their book. At many times early in the book, they deliberately hold back information, waiting until the reader is more fully knowledgeable about TMFTT before adding new evidence to implicate him. Throughout the book, intricacies of how they came to find the real killer is structured in a way to slowly educate the reader until he or she is ready for the James’ latest deduction or research reveal. And for anyone familiar with James’ baseball writing, there is an analytical rigor and statistical analysis to the investigation that adds an enhanced credibility to the overall arguments.
While many readers will buy this book for its true crime storytelling, even if the authors had failed in that aspect (which they don’t), The Man From The Train would be an extraordinary book. In the course of going through the many, many crimes featured in this book, including such famous crimes as the Villisca Axe Murders of 1912, their book paints an endearing portrait of life in small town rural America at the turn of the 20th century. The study and examination of how Americans lived so long ago and the ways their lives had a richness and complexity comparable to our lives in 2017 adds a large dose of humanity to an otherwise gruesome subject matter.
Of course, even that humanity cannot stop the The Man From The Train from turning a bit too grim at times. That’s to be expected, however, given that the book features chapter after chapter involving stories of entire families, almost all with young children, decimated by a deranged axe murder. Nevertheless, The Man From The Train is an engaging page-turner that’s hard to put down. James has an enjoyable style of writing, one that is at turns very conversational, while still remaining authoritative. He directly addresses the reader at many points to argue why he believes he’s right. In addition to the writing, special attention and praise must be paid to the research effort it must have taken to find so many of these crimes, written about so long ago.
Ultimately, many readers are looking for a rewarding conclusion to any book. In this case, The Man On The Train promises the “solving of a century old serial killer mystery.” Given that clear standard, this book is going to judged, fairly or not, in large part by how satisfying the conclusion is. Readers should come away from The Man On The Train completely content and convinced by the authors’ conclusions. This is a great book, one that deserves every bit the widespread praise and audience that “Serial,” “Making a Murderer,” and “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” garnered.
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