Having The Boston Strangler for a handyman is the kind of experience that most young writers turn into their first book, but adventure-journalist Sebastian Junger waited until after his bestseller The Perfect Storm and his reportage collection Fire before committing to paper one of his best dinner-party anecdotes. In 1963, when Junger was two years old and living in the upscale Boston suburb of Belmont, Albert DeSalvo was on a three-person crew that helped build a studio for Junger's mother. Two years later, while under arrest for a series of rapes in New Hampshire, DeSalvo confessed to 13 murders over a three-year stretch—the so-called "Boston Strangler" killings. But he didn't claim one key victim: Bessie Goldberg, choked to death and sexually violated in a Belmont home only a couple of blocks from the Jungers'.
Junger's book A Death In Belmont is only partly about what might've happened if DeSalvo had gotten the killing impulse while working at the Junger home, and it's really only partly about the crimes DeSalvo did and didn't commit. (DeSalvo later recanted his Strangler confessions, though he was murdered in prison before he could explain himself.) Mostly it's about Roy Smith, a black Mississippi native who cleaned Bessie Goldberg's house on the day she was killed, and was quickly convicted of her murder. Junger doesn't contend that Smith was innocent, or that DeSalvo was guilty. Instead, he carefully documents the mid-'60s atmosphere of racial strife and post-assassination grief—John F. Kennedy was shot to death on the day Smith's jury was instructed to reach a verdict—and the way a pre-DNA, pre-"discovery phase" legal system made murder defenses hard to mount.
As always, Junger writes in simple, measured prose that occasionally borders on the remedial. (At times, it reads like he's writing with book-on-tape listeners in mind.) And when he follows seemingly blind tangents about Southern prison farms and corrupt Massachusetts burgs, it's hard to trust that he knows where he's going. But A Death In Belmont does cohere, as Junger examines the evidence and the times from multiple objective perspectives, and comes to the conclusion that while it may be impossible to learn the truth about a murder, the crime itself can teach things about where and when it happened, even to those who lived around the corner.