Account of the eccentric online communities that have transformed the forensic identification of deceased missing persons.
“Chances are good that you or someone you know has at one point stumbled over a dead body,” writes Boston-based science writer Halber in this passionately rendered debut. “America is home to tens of thousands of unidentified human remains.” Using a number of infamous unsolved crimes as a framework—including such regional legends as Kentucky’s “Tent Girl” and Provincetown’s “Lady of the Dunes”—the author argues that, despite our cultural fondness for crime stories and pursuit of perpetrators, it remains shockingly easy for a dead body to remain unidentified and thus disappeared, whether through natural or malicious intervention. Until recently, law enforcement was often ineffective in managing UIDs, given that such cases often crossed state lines as well as the technical complexities of handling decomposed remains. This began to change in 2004, when Justice Department studies found alarming numbers of unidentified remains in many jurisdictions; at the same time, many amateurs had begun to connect, share information and provide tips on cold cases via the Internet. Halber recounts her interviews with several of these cold-case enthusiasts, a diverse group ranging from a Massachusetts police dispatcher to a self-described “Southern version of Kojak” whose identification of Tent Girl after 40 years led to a full-time career. Since then, amateur interest in such unsolved cases has expanded: Halber notes that crowd-sourced discussion boards like Cold Cases and the Doe Network evolved spontaneously, taking advantage of information secreted in the Web’s dark corners, yet often wound up becoming competitive and catty. Although law enforcement used to resist such outsider involvement, many officials now recognize the benefits of the homegrown sleuths’ efforts.
Both charming and disturbing, Halber’s accessible, personalized style is engaging despite being somewhat at odds with the grisly aspects of her topic.