Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Death in Belmont

Sebastian Junger, best known as the author of the huge bestseller, The Perfect Storm, has one of the spookiest family photos that one can imagine. In that 1963 photo, baby Sebastian and his mother are posing in celebration with the construction workers who have just completed a project at the Junger home. What makes that photo so unusual is the fact that one of those workers is none other than Albert DeSalvo, the man who was soon to confess to the Boston police to being the infamous Boston Strangler.

That photo and the family's exposure to Albert DeSalvo became part of the Junger family folklore and it is the jumping off point for Junger's A Death in Belmont. The death referred to in the book's title happened just one mile from the Junger home and, although it bore all the earmarks of a Boston Strangler murder, a jury ultimately decided that it was the work of a black man, Roy Smith, rather than being another Strangler murder. Belmont, in 1963, was an all-white Boston suburb in which violent crime was unheard of so the murder there of Bessie Goldberg was something which its residents found hard to believe.

Naturally, the Junger family's brush with murder remained a family topic of discussion for years to come, and Sebastian Junger grew up believing that an innocent black man had been convicted of a murder that had actually been one of the more than a dozen that were committed by Albert DeSalvo instead. Some 40 years after the Strangler murders, Junger decided to see if it would be possible to determine which of the men was responsible for the Goldberg murder and A Death in Belmont is the result of his efforts.

Junger managed to find and interview in detail most of the still living members of Roy Smith's family and the reader comes to know and understand Smith well enough to judge for himself whether or not Smith was capable of the type of crime suffered by Bessie Goldberg. And much of the book goes into all the possible motivations that Albert DeSalvo may have had for confessing to the Strangler murders, whether or not he was the actual killer. Because anticipation of Junger's ultimate conclusion as to which of the men killed Goldberg and whether or not DeSalvo was, in fact, the Boston Strangler, is part of the fun of reading this book, I am not going to note his conclusions here, however.

A Death in Belmont is an extremely well-researched book and Junger's style makes it read more like a novel at times than the non-fiction speculation that it is. I listened to the audio version of the book and was impressed with Kevin Conway, its reader, who did an amazing job on the various accents of the many voices quoted throughout the book. Conway was able to shift easily from the Boston accent of DeSalvo to the southern black accent of Roy Smith and his family and his talents added much to my appreciation of the book.

Rated at: 3.5
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