Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James take readers headfirst through a winding tale of murder and mystery traversing the country in their recent book The Man from the Train. Appropriately named, the authors draw parallels among a long series of unsolved murders and conclude that a killer known only as the ‘Man from the Train’ for the majority of the book is the missing link.
What I found so immediately fascinating when first picking this up was the idea of being able to pinpoint a killer for such a large number of unsolved cases executed so long ago. This is clearly a monumental task. It’s even more daunting when sources of the time appear to be at times misleading, sparse, contradictory, or biased. It’s easy to forget that communication and the sharing of information has changed drastically over the course of a century. So while the quality and quantity of past sources may have been disappointing for the authors, they did a laudable job making the most of it. Throughout the book there were plenty of facts and sources presented to build a credible story. Where these were lacking, as a reader I appreciated them calling out source inconsistencies or lack of detail.
Getting into the content itself, the crimes are as fascinating and gruesome as any you see in other true crime novels. The normal gamut of emotions envelope you as the authors guide you through harrowing crime scenes. Horror, shock, and disgust at the crimes. Empathy and compassion for the helpless victims (especially the children). Curiosity and preoccupation with how the Man on the Train was able to so stealthily commit these crimes and escape unnoticed. And admittedly a sense of wonder at his effectiveness.
Through the first part of the book I attempted to keep track of the murders, in order to try to draw parallels across them for myself. I quickly realized this was nearly impossible. There are so many cases iterated in these pages that it perhaps could have benefited from a full chronological timeline towards the middle or end. Although there were a series of summary lists after some sections, it’s difficult to grasp the full scope of devastation this killer caused. In the book each murder itself is presented as almost a piecemeal consumable chunk of information, ranging from a few paragraphs to many pages in length. For a large portion of the book these are presented in series which feels like reading a succession of conversational news articles and has its tradeoffs. While each described murder is individually very informative and well analyzed, there was minimal storytelling thread woven across the murders to maintain engagement with the reader.
I had similarly mixed feelings about the style in which the story was presented. It’s clear the authors were very well informed on the topic, and passionate about presenting the facts as they stood. However as the mechanism for sharing their information, the author voice used in the book was conversational and at times blunt. This again has pros and cons. The style did make the story very consumable and easy to binge read (as I did many nights and expect you may too). It also built some amount of trust and implicit sense of honesty between you the reader and the authors. However, the occasional first person interjections at times felt distracting from the facts they worked so hard to gather. Perhaps some compromise of conversational tone but more selectively chosen asides would have elevated the book even further.
Overall I did enjoy this book, and applaud the dedication and perseverance of the authors. They obviously went through great effort to build out the story and facts in a way that lent credence and plausibility to their theories. In the end the book is very convincing, and the last section read especially strongly. While the style and some organizational pieces could have benefited from small tweaks, I felt the premise and work behind the book was unique and impressive. On whole I recommend The Man from the Train for anyone interested in how a series of century-old murders could possibly be solved, and welcome you to decide for yourself whether the authors do.