The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the internet; they’re stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What’s clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don’t exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on.
–Robert Kolker, Lost Girls
Lost Girls starts with a story straight out of a mystery novel, a trendy Scandinavian crime thriller: a panicked prostitute disrupts a sleepy and isolated beach community, usually peaceful behind its private gate, when she sprints from door to door, asking for help, hiding behind bushes and parked boats. A man in a black SUV chases the woman down as she sprints away from his headlights. The stunned community calls the police. Cops show up too late–forty-five minutes later, they arrive to no trace of the girl or the black SUV. In their search for the young woman months later, police start to discover bodies. Four of them, clustered together, at first.
This mysterious sequence of events, seemingly created in the dark mind of a mystery novelist, is pulled from recent history. Robert Kolker‘s Lost Girls documents the unsolved murders of four women (possibly more) on Oak Beach, a barrier island of Long Island. All four women were prostitutes; all four were using Craigslist to solicit johns. It seems the killer in this case realized what apparently many killers do: prostitutes are often not reported as missing, and their deaths are often dismissed as the price of their chosen vocation. Kolker eloquently describes this after one especially frustrating police ruling: “the police seemed to be saying that [the missing woman] had died because her soul had been rent asunder by a life in the streets.”
Lost Girls asks the traditional true crime questions–who is the murderer? Why haven’t they been caught? Why weren’t the bodies noticed? And what about the pathologically lying, limping doctor who lives on Oak Island? But there is an even greater mystery at hand which Lost Girls chooses to explore–how does someone end up on Craigslist, offering their body to strangers for cash? Kolker, in a fascinating, touching, and intimate way, tracks the story of each woman back by finding those who knew her best, from childhood forward. Illustrated by maps charting each woman’s ominous progression towards her final destination point of Oak Beach, NY, Lost Girls documents the four women’s lives. They all encounter hiccups, struggles, and tragedies along the way that lead them to prostitution and Craigslist; their stories all halt mid-frame as each young woman goes missing in the midst of a life they were planning to earn just a bit more from and then get the hell out of.
By making Lost Girls the story of the murdered women, much more than the investigation or the killer-at-large, Kolker manages to shine light on a glaring and uncomfortable point of the sex trade: police seem to dismiss reports of missing prostitutes. Or their friends, working girls themselves, are too fearful to report them missing. When the women are found murdered, and the police are forced to show more interest, they still seem to chalk murder up to a direct result of prostitution, placing the blame with the women and the women’s families. Kolker documents some unbearable victim-blaming by the police, and near the end of the book, it gets to be difficult to read: police describing the women as “greedy”, suggesting they can’t resist going with a serial killer john who offers them a lot of money to hop into a shady situation.
The only thing I did feel was missing, and it seemed to be achingly absent from the second half of the book, was documentation of some of the police work done on the case. I’m not sure if this is because the killer is still out there and the police didn’t want to reveal too much of their investigation, or if there was another reason for this, but Kolker doesn’t document the police investigation itself. It seems that Kolker has one brief interview with the Suffolk County police commissioner and his chief of detectives, both desperately needing a lesson in PR. I kept waiting for more detailed information on the police investigation that never came.
Mysteries without a clear solution are captivating, exhausting, frustrating. As noted in my review of The Hanging Judge a few weeks ago, there can often seem to be a moment when looking over all the evidence, in puzzles both real and created, where it is clear no single explanation can possibly explain past events. Kolker has managed to write clearly about a puzzling mess of facts, rumors, and biases which have built this unsolved case into something daunting and nonsensical. He writes about what happened in the only way we can understand, for now: by telling the stories of the victims, overlooked for so long, unable to speak for themselves. These women were, truly, lost girls. Kolker dared to try to find them. Sadly, he was too late.