On the Beach: In ‘Lost Girls,’ Robert Kolker Looks Past the Long Island Serial Killer and Into the Lives of the Victims

Robert Kolker.

Robert Kolker.

There are two types of true-crime books. Some are exploitative, titillating their readers with gory details. These books are often made without the victims’ blessing or participation. The other type grasps at serious literature.

Robert Kolker’s new book falls into the latter category. A New York magazine contributing editor, Mr. Kolker does more in this text to illuminate the frightening world of Internet-procured prostitution than any other work of which I am aware. “The demand for commercial sex will never go away,” he writes. “Neither will the Internet; they’re stuck with each other.”

Lost Girls (Harper, 399 pp., $25.99) tells the story of the man—or possibly men—referred to in the media as the Long Island Serial Killer. Tellingly, however, Mr. Kolker never mentions that moniker, completely eschewing sensationalism. Instead, he focuses on the victims—who they were, where they came from, and how they ended up working in the dangerous and degrading sex trade.

Indeed, the first half of the book does not mention the victims’ deaths at all. Instead, Mr. Kolker details the sad lives of Shannan Gilbert, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Lynn Overstreet Costello (the first woman has not been officially defined by police as one of the victims of the Long Island Serial Killer). All five women came from broken or disturbed homes and unfortunate economic circumstances, all were in their 20s and all were working as prostitutes through Craigslist. Lost Girls does not condescend to its subjects by absolving them of any poor decision making, but the book does detail their lives with great compassion and intimacy, showing how their choices were reasonable and logical, if ill-fated.

The title of the book has a dual meaning. All five women were missing for a period, of course, before their remains were found along the Ocean Parkway. But all five were also lost psychologically before they physically went missing—lost in drugs, poor and dangerous relationships, and immense pain. And all five women were first victimized as girls, suffering from neglect, abuse or poverty. Long before Lost Girls details the women’s disappearances, heartbreak pours from its pages.

The book’s second half recounts the discovery of the bodies, the families’ subsequent behavior, and the search for the killer or killers. Ghastly, unnecessary details are kept to a minimum, with the focus instead being on the investigation and the grieving families. To his credit, Mr. Kolker never speculates on the killer’s identity—he is here to tell about a series of crimes, not to solve them. But the bizarre, callous behavior of Oak Beach residents is the disturbing background that generates a number of obvious suspects, none of whom emerge as likable in their interviews with the author.

Mr. Kolker’s interviews with the victims’ family members reveal sordid details about their missing sisters and daughters, documenting drug use, relationship failures, sexual abuse and other burdens. But given the level of intimacy and access they provided him, Mr. Kolker must have found it most complicated to write about the petty squabbles of the families—instead of presenting a united front, they often despise and undermine each other. Their pain is palpable, but so are their flaws.

The man referred to as the Craigslist Killer, Philip Markoff, was a middle-class Boston University medical student who killed one woman in 2009. The men and women who populate Lost Girls are much more representative of the world of online prostitution.

The women do not become online sex workers because of “money, stability, autonomy and even job satisfaction,” as an Arkansas researcher is quoted as saying, absurdly. They do it, Mr. Kolker argues, because there is less chance of getting arrested by police, less reliance on pimps and more anonymity. But of course, “few people considered how the Web’s anonymity stood to make escort work more dangerous than ever,” writes Mr. Kolker.

Meanwhile, the Suffolk County police appear incompetent and insensitive. Often when prostitutes are missing or murdered, their families claim that the police are lackluster in their investigations because they consider the victims at best a low priority and at worst dispensable. Mr. Kolker’s book lends credence to that view. At a public safety hearing, the chief of detectives called it a “consolation” that the killer wasn’t “selecting citizens at large—he’s selecting from a pool.” Prostitutes are “very available, they’re very vulnerable, they’re willing to get into a car with a stranger,” he continued. Just don’t be a hooker, he was suggesting, and you don’t have to worry. That same chief, Dominick Varrone, tells Mr. Kolker that “greed gets the best of them. In fact, most of them are in the business that they’re in because it’s an easy way to make money, because they’re greedy.”

For all his access and his admirable attempts at humanizing the women, Mr. Kolker can fail to be evocative. The victims sometimes seem indistinguishable. By not telling each woman’s story in its entirety before moving on to the next one, he occasionally makes it difficult to remember which one is which. As much as Mr. Kolker wants to show their individuality, his narrative structure has the opposite effect.

That flaw aside, Lost Girls is a model of how a true-crime author can simultaneously write a riveting book and do justice to crime victims while highlighting an underreported issue. “They weren’t angels,” writes Mr. Kolker of the murdered women. “They weren’t devils.” They were, in other words, a lot like everyone else.

editorial@observer.com