There’s a saying in newspaper publishing: If it bleeds, it leads. The only thing that captures the attention of the public better than a bloody crime scene is a bloody crime scene that raises more questions than it answers.
In “The Annals of Unsolved Crime,” Edward Jay Epstein looks at 35 cases that were never satisfactorily resolved. He takes as his subjects not John or Jane Doe but rather some of the most famous people to ever die violently: Abraham Lincoln, the Lindbergh baby, the Black Dahlia and John F. Kennedy, to name just a few.
Many, if not most, of these cases have had at least one movie made about them, and although the reader may sometimes feel as if he is in well-worn territory, Epstein often is able to provide exactly the kind of comprehensive and levelheaded analysis that is usually drowned out in the sensationalism.
These cases represent some of the most over-investigated in history, so there’s not much new Epstein can bring to, say, the JonBenet Ramsey case; if there was new evidence, you would have heard about it already. It’s only when he turns his attention to complex international intrigue and “Crimes of State” that the book really crackles. Events such as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and an entire series of mysterious political plane crashes are analyzed both in terms of forensics and the overriding international influences at play.
There also is some interesting CSI-style problem solving, such as in the case of Roberto Calvi, dubbed “God’s Banker” for his work investing for the Vatican, found hanging from a bridge with his feet in the River Thames. At what time was the tide high enough to reach his wrist, breaking his non-waterproof watch and thus pointing toward the time of death but not high enough to cover his mouth, as there was no water found in his lungs?
As a longtime investigative journalist, Epstein knows how to break down a crime scene, and he’s equally able to slip into the mind-set of both deranged killer and cold-blooded assassin. He presents the facts in the bullet-pointed manner of a legal brief, each chapter ending with a paragraph of his opinion that nearly always begins with the words “In my assessment.” It’s a thorough approach, but the opportunity was lost to add some narrative flow — emotional impact to go along with the physical.
If there is one lesson to be taken from “Annals,” let it be this: If you’re planning to lead a coup, revolution or dissident activity of any kind, it’s in your best interest to avoid traveling in small planes.
'The Annals of Unsolved Crime' by Edward Jay Epstein Melville House (347 pages, $26)