Many thanks to the author, Matthew McGough, and publisher, Henry Holt and Co., for providing a digital ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis (via NetGalley ) :
A deeply-reported, riveting account of a cold case murder in Los Angeles, unsolved until DNA evidence implicated a shocking suspect – a female detective within the LAPD’s own ranks.
On February 24, 1986, 29-year-old newlywed Sherri Rasmussen was murdered in the home she shared with her husband, John. The crime scene suggested a ferocious struggle, and police initially assumed it was a burglary gone awry. Before her death, Sherri had confided to her parents that an ex-girlfriend of John’s, a Los Angeles police officer, had threatened her. The Rasmussens urged the LAPD to investigate the ex-girlfriend, but the original detectives only pursued burglary suspects, and the case went cold.
DNA analysis did not exist when Sherri was murdered. Decades later, a swab from a bite mark on Sherri’s arm revealed her killer was in fact female, not male. A DNA match led to the arrest and conviction of veteran LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus, John’s onetime girlfriend.
The Lazarus Files delivers the visceral experience of being inside a real-life murder mystery. McGough reconstructs the lives of Sherri, John and Stephanie; the love triangle that led to Sherri’s murder; and the homicide investigation that followed. Was Stephanie protected by her fellow officers? What did the LAPD know, and when did they know it? Are there other LAPD cold cases with a police connection that remain unsolved?
Making my way through this book was something of a journey. Based on the synopsis I anticipated a thrilling ride through the history of the crime and investigation, perhaps with some surprising twists and heart-wrenching details. A handful of pages in it became obvious that the tone of the book was different than expected, which isn’t necessarily negative commentary but did require a reset of expectations. While there are things about this book I enjoyed there were also a number of elements I didn’t love. To the right reader, however, this book might tick all the boxes.
As with many books in the true crime genre, a healthy amount of research is required to build the appropriate level of background and context to breathe life into the story. This book went above and beyond. In the epilogue the author mentions having done nine years of research, which is absolutely incredible. Throughout the book this level of detail is front and center. In the intersection of this research and the emotional quality of the case, it was easy to sympathize with Sherri’s family and form emotional responses to particular characters. Each flaw in how the case was handled by detectives was painful and frustrating to read. Gaps in communication with friends, family, and the breadth of potential suspects was disappointing. The emotional investment in seeing justice carried out kept the pages turning.
Odd as it is to say, I wish the author would have exploited this more. With just a little more crafted storytelling the book could have taken the reader’s attachment to a heightened level. The additional narrative excitement would have helped balance the book out slightly more.
The case itself was also fascinating – any story involving an ex-girlfriend love triangle and the LAPD is surely going to lead to some interesting conflict. Here the book did not disappoint. There was abundant detail on misinformation and lack of accountability in police force involvement on the case, and enough information on Stephanie to build out the relationship. However even as the tension was clear across these elements there was somehow a lack of drama. This possibly reaches back to the balance of story versus straightforward case detail.
While the case piqued my interest and there were many things I liked about it, the book’s sheer length was daunting. This was due in part to the meticulous amount of detail regarding the case and the exploration into related backstories and supporting subplots. When used tactfully these types of details can certainly enhance reader context, however some detours weren’t obviously relevant until later (if at all). It’s possible some of these sections could have been pared down to help them feel more topical and improve book length. I recognize balancing the ratio of case detail to storyline can be very difficult, especially in the true crime genre where there’s an abundance of facts to be discussed. Trimming to essentials, however, can reign a meandering narrative in and could possibly have helped drive the story in a more focused manner.
On a related note, there were times when pieces of the case were repeated. It’s unclear whether this was intentional in order to reinforce important notes of the case, or if it was meant to refocus the reader after a detour into related details. If readers put down the book periodically at a different cadence, perhaps this structure would be helpful. For me it struck me as a bit too repetitive.
In the end this book was an impressive documentation of the case and shortcomings on the part of detectives, but didn’t quite hit the level of excitement and storytelling I hoped for. That being said, for those who enjoy absorbing all the minutia of a case or appreciate a level of biographical flair with their true crime this book might be just what you’re looking for. I’d recommend this book on a case by case basis based on reader interest.