The Man From The Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery
By Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James
464 pages, $30
Bill James is one person who COULD quit his day job.
Baseball fanatics, especially those who revel in statistics and numbers crunching, know James as the father of sabermetrics, the scientific analysis of baseball's seemingly infinite statistics.
But James also has another fascinating "job," transferring his painstaking research from the baseball field to the world of true crime, especially old crime.
Really old crime.
"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.
More than 450 pages of true crime may be too much for many readers, but James, the great writer that he is, grabs the reader with his half-page pre-preface:
"It is a warm night, most often on a weekend. There is a very small town with a railroad track that runs through the town, or sometimes along the edge of it... He is looking for a house with no dog. He would prefer a house on the edge of town, just isolated enough to provide a little bit of cover. A big two-story house would be best, with a family of five. A barn where he can hide out from sundown until the middle of the night ... He is looking for a house with a woodpile in the front yard, and an axe sticking up out of the woodpile."
Talk about haunting. This is the story of The Man from the Train.
The serial killer settled on a set routine, at least after his first few brutal killings. He murdered families, usually in their sleep in the middle of the night, wielding the blunt end of an axe and often targeting families with young daughters. James, fortunately, spares us most of the ghastly details on that last point.
A man who ruthlessly kills dozens and dozens of family members all over the nation can't escape scrutiny, even in the days when "breaking news" didn't race across the country in nanoseconds. A pattern did emerge, mostly because of this crazed killer's signature: killing whole families that lived near railroad tracks (for a quicker getaway), doing them in with the blunt axe end and spending time with their bodies afterwards.
That's distinctive enough to draw attention, even in the horse-and-buggy days, long before the advent of federal and state police agencies that crossed local jurisdictions to investigate crimes with hauntingly similar M.O.s. Ultimately, authorities began connecting the dots in 1911.
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. But then James, having stitched together an irrefutable killing pattern, doubles back to 1900 -- and even before -- to prove his thesis, that the Train Man had been killing randomly chosen families for a decade and a half before Villisca.
"I have long been fascinated by the notion that knowledge can be created about the past," James writes, in a statement tying together his baseball and true-crime research. For this book, he, along with daughter Rachel McCarthy James, pored over hundreds of thousands of old small-town newspaper stories, public documents, even ancient railroad schedules, to prove his case.
Sometimes, alas, James the researcher overwhelms James the writer. This book is long, filled with quite a few detailed crimes that Train Man probably didn't commit. To his credit, James doesn't exaggerate the number of Train Man's victims; he lays out the facts in many possibly related cases, cites the pros and cons of including them and then gives his opinion. Still, some readers might appreciate a slimmed-down version of these cases.
This is no pure whodunit, but rather a how-many-did-he-do. This crazed man, who enjoyed the act of killing and fled from his bloody rampages by quietly riding the rails, left unsophisticated, overwhelmed, small-town police agencies looking to pin the crimes on local residents with any connection to the family or any motive, no matter how flimsy. Those rushes to judgment even led to some lynchings, executions and lengthy prison sentences for totally innocent suspects.
James craftily keeps the reader in suspense until the last few chapters. Was Train Man ever identified? Was he ever caught? And how did he meet his demise?
The author has another great tool to keep you hooked, his folksy, informal way of addressing the reader as if you were sitting together on a park bench or adjoining bar stools.
For example, after going back in time from 1912 to the turn of the century, James directly addresses the reader:
"Let me break now from the disembodied narrative voice that we normally use to write books and speak to you one-on-one, writer to reader. I need to explain my problem to you, and I don't know how I would do that, other than in the first person."
Nice touch, but 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.
Gene Warner is a retired Buffalo News reporter well-acquainted with writing about both crime and baseball.