The Man from the Train by Bill James, Rachel McCarthy James, review by Bruce Jacobs
Bill James is a savant of baseball statistics and probabilities. The annual Bill James Handbook (since 2003) uses his innovative sabermetrics to analyze strategic baseball trends (e.g., the infield shift, batter swing angles, pitch count management, etc.) to predict next year's winners and losers. When he stumbled upon the unsolved 1912 axe killing of a Villasca, Iowa, family of eight, the lifelong Kansan began to comb newspaper archives for similar crimes in the southern Midwest. One unsolved grisly murder led to another until James put aside baseball to enlist his daughter's help to research every remotely similar case.
The Man from the Train is the story of their work mapping historical crimes and logging the key repeating elements of the murders. Working backward in time from 1912, they uncovered almost 100 killings that fit the pattern. They statistically categorized and tracked the incidents from Texas to Nova Scotia, convinced that the slaughters were the work of one man who traveled by local trains to and from the scenes. And they were confident that modern tools of forensics coupled with the Internet's deep data, statistical analysis and their persistence would turn up the identity of the serial killer. Remarkably, they were right. Despite the best efforts of early 20th-century rural law enforcement, the angry emotions and vigilantism of neighbors, and voluminous newspaper reporting, only the James partnership got their man.
As one might expect from someone who has built a career out of replacing anecdotal baseball scripture with statistical analysis, James chronicles crime scene after crime scene with a methodical storytelling flair. He cites eyewitness newspaper reporting and police records noting the killer's pattern: using the blunt side of the axe, burning down the house or locking it up after the carnage, stacking bodies, avoiding any theft of valuables, and always slipping out of town when the train came through. Each murdered family has its own story, and James digs into the aftermath of the crime and the gossip about the victims--the rumors of infidelity and greed. Some cops are diligent, some merely grab the closest drifter to take the rap. Innocents are jailed. Families are torn apart. The man from the train leaves more than corpses in his wake.
With reportorial objectivity, James tells their stories. His work is more Joe Friday--"Just the facts, ma'am"--than Truman Capote, although James is not above a few Columbo-like winks and asides to the reader. As he ends an early chapter, "I will explain what I believe happened and why I believe that, and you can decide whether you agree or disagree. Perhaps, until then, you will be kind enough to suspend judgment? Appreciate it." As readers follow along with the authors' true-crime sleuthing, they're apt to become convinced--just like the Red Sox were convinced to hang onto aging "Kung Fu Panda" Pablo Sandoval.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.