A juicy, disturbing account of “the world’s first capitalist serial killer,” who wreaked havoc among unsuspecting expatriates in a remote, hedonistic Panama archipelago.
Former diplomat and South American correspondent Foster (Financial Times) was researching the circa-2011 real estate boom in Panama when he became fascinated by the grisly case against William “Wild Bill” Holbert, accused of murdering several fellow Americans in the pristine, remote Bocas del Toro region, a destination for both adventurous retirees and younger wayfarers wishing to lie low. In Bocas, small-time criminal Holbert, along with his silent, moody wife, Jane, reinvented himself as a boisterous partier, opening a ramshackle bar on the property of a retired drug dealer who’d seemingly vanished. Holbert had discovered an intriguing loophole, in that most expats purchased their homes via Panamanian shell corporations: “the person physically holding the paper was the owner.” Remarkably, Holbert “flipped” several properties, foisting his presence upon the expats’ druggy social scene, in which he was largely accepted, until he killed a woman with sufficient presence that “people were now figuring out that [she] wasn’t the only expat who had disappeared.” Foster writes attentively, delivering a keen sense of place, in terms of Panama’s rugged, seductive natural beauty as well as the seedy quality of the self-segregating “gringo” community, where middle-age expats were too busy partying to notice the predator in their midst. Wild Bill makes a grotesque yet compelling central character, a cross between an obnoxious beach bum and the literary psychopath Tom Ripley. Laconic yet detail-oriented prose adds readability to a sordid tale, although digressive narratives detailing the development of the Panama Canal and the rise and fall of dictator Manuel Noriega as additional examples of predatory capitalism don’t quite gel with the humbler malice of Wild Bill.
An engrossing, well-developed true-crime tale, unsettling in its portrayal of the underbelly of its tropical setting.