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.