Hey guys, I just want to make a quick comment because this is the first time we’ve had him write an article for the site, but this is an excellent book review by Tim Cuff, who is of course my cohost on The World’s Best Podcast with Paul & Tim. Tim is a great writer and this is a great review. Enjoy!
THE MAN FROM THE TRAIN Written by Bill James
(Reviewed by Tim Cuff)
If you’re familiar with Bill James, it’s more than likely because of baseball. He is the father of sabremetrics (basically, the use of statistics and analyzing real data to draw conclusions, as opposed to using gut feelings and eyeball observations). Anyone familiar with modern sports is aware of this word, a word that Bill James invented. Currently he is the Senior Advisor of Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox. Luckily for Paul, however, this review isn’t about baseball. Bill James and I have another passion, darker and less mainstream than baseball: serial killers.
Photo of Bill James
The Man from the Train deals with an extremely prolific (100+, yes not a typo, 100+ murders) serial killer that most of us have never heard of. This is mostly because he committed crimes in the early 1900s, which I will elaborate on in a later paragraph. His modus operandi is as follows: he would take a train to a random small town, find a house extremely close to the railroad tracks, find an axe on the family property, hide in a barn or other out building, break in through a window in the middle of the night, and kill the entire family while they slept (usually saving a young girl for last). Once completed he would hop back on the train, and would be hundreds of miles away by the time the bodies were discovered. He was methodical, vicious, but most importantly random. This randomness helped him in a time where there were no criminal profilers and no one had heard of the term “serial killer.” One small town would almost never hear the news from another small town 100 miles away, and it took many years for anyone to connect the murders.
Photo of an actual murder site taken shortly after the murders
The book focuses on two major aspects of his crimes: the crimes themselves, and the shockwaves resulting from the crimes. The former can be tough to read about. However Bill James makes no bones about it: this guy is a scumbag. James doesn’t try to get in his head, or imagine what it is like to be him, or speak about his methodology in almost admirable ways. James repeatedly states what a disgusting monster he is, and in an interview mentions he is “glad the sonofabitch is dead” as the publishing of this book would likely give him pleasure. But the Man from the Train wasn’t BTK or Zodiac. He didn’t want to be caught, he didn’t send taunting letters to the police; he just wanted to kill people. James doesn’t elaborate on the more ghastly parts of his crimes. He sort of glosses over the gory details, and more importantly he doesn’t discuss at length the sexual nature of the crimes (the killer seems to have a fascination with young girls I won’t go into here).
Photo from a logging camp. James believes the murderer was a logger, hence his propensity to use an axe.
Some of the more interesting parts of the book, however, are how society reacted in the early 1900s. Police investigations were extremely limited. A small town police force in Kansas from 100 years ago isn’t exactly chock full of Frank Pembletons (kudos to anyone who gets that reference). Most of the time local police would have to hire private investigators, who were for-profit detectives that could be anywhere from intelligent, to inept, to out-right conmen. In 1910 no one could seem to wrap their brain around the idea of a serial killer with no motive. Almost always a neighbor, or family member, or local nutcase, or local minority (almost always black) would instantly be blamed for the crime. Even when some of the murders finally were linked, police still searched for some sort of personal connection with at least one of the victims. Some of the resulting stories and trials following a murder are nothing short of ridiculous. Many people were imprisoned, executed, or lynched due to false accusations.
A rural police force
Most importantly, though not a spoiler, James (by his own admission) accidentally discovers who the killer is. James spent 7 years researching the crimes. He didn’t seek to write a book such as Jack the Ripper: Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell. That book was solely written for the purpose of solving Jack the Ripper. James had no intention he would be solving anything, until he discovers mistakes the killer made. Eventually working his way backwards he finds “the first crime,” a crime of a not-yet-experienced murderer. Mistakes were made, he was identified, and narrowly escaped the police. This escape unfortunately led to the deaths of 100 more people.
The downsides to this book, if there are any, is that it is quite long (I read it on a Kindle so it’s hard to tell, but I believe it’s over 400 pages). For a nonfiction book that can be quite a row to hoe. Reading about the 30th murder (almost all of the murders are discussed at length), for example, can be a little tedious. Eventually I felt, “Okay I get it. He killed this family too, in the exact same fashion. Let’s move on.”
If you are a fan of true crime, especially serial killers, or have a historic interest in our criminal justice system, I highly recommend this book. I admire James’s no-nonsense writing style. He will state his opinion and not be afraid to say, “This is my opinion, though I could not convince a skeptic of this.” It definitely is of a darker nature, and isn’t for everyone. If this isn’t the type of story for you, I recommend the more upbeat Curious George and the Birthday Surprise, for which I will have an upcoming review.