In the new book, the Jameses give tick-tock accounts of each homicidal rampage—sending the reader across the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and the South and even to eastern Canada—in an attempt to determine whether the guilty party was in fact The Man From the Train … It is not easy to read about these murders—among the dead is a day-old infant—and the authors sometimes stray from good taste. Despite insisting that they will not describe The Man From the Train with a ‘cutesy nickname’—’Billy the Ax Man,’ for instance—the Jameses can’t refrain from their own occasional cutesiness … Despite these occasional lapses in judgment, this is an impressive work, an open-eyed investigative inquiry wrapped within a cultural history of rural America at the turn of the 20th century...In its peculiar way, the book winds up being a celebration of the forgotten corners of America, a paean to the poor folks who lived out by the railroad tracks.
James has made a surprising career shift by writing about true crime, and with the help of his daughter Rachel may have stumbled upon something truly spectacular … Though all well told, the chapters begin to feel as relentless and repetitive as ‘The Part About the Crimes’ in Roberto Bolaño’s classic novel, 2666. But the book shines when we get to see the Jameses’ thinking. Like the recent Netflix documentary The Keepers, it’s fun to watch these amateur detectives solve a puzzle. And solve it they do — after 400 pages, when Rachel discovers the killer’s first crime way back in 1898. Did they get it right? I’m pretty sure they did.
The Man from the Train is a beautifully written and extraordinarily researched narrative of a man who may have killed 95 — or more — people, dating back more than a century, mostly in small-town Middle America … James uses an interesting time structure here, teasing the reader first with the most notorious case, the killing spree that left eight people murdered inside a Villisca, Iowa farmhouse in June 1912. The author then puts that event into perspective, tracing the killer's path from 1909 to 1912 … It's the storytelling, the exhaustive research and the suspense over the killer's identity that keep you turning the pages of an otherwise too-long book.
The Jameses have an advantage that contemporary reporters and investigators did not: namely, access to newspaper archives, digital maps, and spreadsheets. Based on deep-dive analysis, they argue—elegantly and persuasively—that these seemingly haphazard murders were connected, and that one man is to blame. If that’s true, and if we attribute all of these slayings to him, we’re talking about the worst serial killer in U.S. history, responsible for more than 100 deaths … But how do we know that these far-flung murders are related? The Jameses list 33 unique ‘signatures’ that define the killer’s methodology and that recur with startling frequency at numerous crime scenes … The idea that axe murders somehow represented America’s id during a period of runaway modernization is one of the book’s many fascinating theses. ‘There are trends and fashions in crimes as much as in any other area,’ the Jameses write.
Pioneering baseball analyst Bill James successfully transfers his detail-oriented mind-set to true crime in this suspenseful historical account, cowritten with his daughter, Rachel McCarthy James … The authors, who culled data from hundreds of thousands of small-town newspapers of the era to identify crimes not initially thought connected, build their case with an innovative mix of statistical analysis and primary sources. They conclude with a plausible identification of the culprit, but the strength of the book hangs on their diligent research and analysis connecting crimes into the closing years of the 19th century. Even those skeptical at the outset that one man was responsible for so much bloodshed are likely to be convinced.