Billed as what can only be termed a forensic true crime story, The Man From the Train is a must-read. The style of the book is very deliberately researched and therefore leans heavily on being a forensic analysis of the available documents dating back to the period between 1898 and 1912 when, Bill James convincingly argues, a serial killer road the rails through various states killing families in a signature fashion. Bill James doesn’t sensationalize but rather he lays out his and Rachel’s research for the reader to assess. He argues very strongly for his thesis but acknowledges early on that you, the reader, will have ample time to make your assessment.
Does he make his case? Of course. But I think he buries the lead of his book within the crimes. The Man From the Train is a phenomenal piece of research into the history of the country from a very specific point of view. Bill James does put forward the suspect he believes is the man from the train and argues this point convincingly. What makes the book a true must read though are the roles of travel, literacy, poverty, small town life, media, law enforcement and social norms play at this historic point. James doesn’t politicize but he does cast the mirror back upon our modern lives and points out what he thinks will be our judgments from our perspective and understanding of crime. He really stitches together the two distant points in time to bring to light a series of crimes that was largely passed over as historic anomaly and does his best to give the many victims (both direct and indirect) the only sense of peace one really can when so far removed from time and place.
I loved the tone of the book. The focus was not on scandalizing the long dead but rather on really trying to piece together events which (at the time) no one had the means to piece together. I do think that James is often a little too passionately involved and continues trying to convince even when he has already made a very eloquent point. However, I don’t think this detracts but rather feels like a stylistic quirk of the writer. It is well worth the read for anyone interested in history and/or true crime.
**I received a copy to review through NetGalley**