The author of 1997’s The Perfect Storm returns to his suburban-Boston childhood home to take a harrowing family encounter with the Boston Strangler and build it into a trenchant look at an era of great unrest.
In the fall of 1963, as Boston cowered under a brutal series of rapes and murders, elderly Bessie Goldberg was found raped and strangled in her Belmont living room, just a few blocks from the house where one-year-old Sebastian Junger lived with his parents. Eight Boston-area women had already been murdered, so when the police arrested a black handyman who’d been cleaning Mrs. Goldberg’s house that day, they were sure they’d finally found their serial killer. At the time, Junger’s mother, an artist, was in the process of having a studio added to their house. One of the men working on it was a quiet, somewhat odd painter named Albert DeSalvo, who left the job the day after the Goldberg killing. It was several years after the cleaning man, Roy Smith, had been convicted and sentenced to life that DeSalvo identified himself to authorities as the Boston Stranger. Junger methodically examines the sordid, misshapen lives of both Smith and DeSalvo in his haunting narrative (occasionally marred by lengthy legalistic detours). Smith, who’d run afoul of the law early and often since his youth in Mississippi, staunchly maintained his innocence. DeSalvo, who’d essentially confessed to killing 13 other women, stubbornly refused to admit murdering Goldberg. Junger comes to no firm conclusions as he follows the developments, but his gripping, highly readable drama of crime and punishment highlights the random chance that often separates victim from survivor. In at least one unnerving instance, Junger’s unsuspecting mother was alone in the house with the grinning, erratic DeSalvo, who in the midst of his murder spree found time to pose for a heartwarming portrait with baby Sebastian and his mom.
A meticulously researched evocation of a time of terror, wrapped around a chilling, personal footnote.