The Man From the Train

The Man From the Train

The Solving of A Century-old Serial Killer Mystery

Book - 2017
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"Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Jewelry and valuables were left in plain sight, bodies were piled together, faces covered with cloth. Some of these cases, like the infamous Villisca, Iowa murders, received national attention. But few people believed the crimes were related. And fewer still would realize that all of these families lived within walking distance to a train station. When celebrated baseball statistician and true crime expert Bill James first learned about these crimes, he began to investigate others that might fit the same pattern. Applying the analytical acumen he brings to baseball analysis, he empirically determined which crimes were committed by the same person. Then after sifting through thousands of local newspapers, court transcripts and public records, he and his daughter Rachel made an astonishing discovery. They learned the true identity of this monstrous criminal, and in turn, uncovered one of the deadliest serial killers in American history."--
Publisher: New York :, Scribner,, 2017.
Edition: First Scribner hardcover edition.
Copyright Date: ©2017
ISBN: 9781476796253
Branch Call Number: 364.15232 JA
Characteristics: xi, 464 pages ; 24 cm
Additional Contributors: James, Rachel McCarthy - Author


From Library Staff

2018 nominee - also available as downloadable audiobook in OverDrive

Late 19th Century/early 20th Century all around the US & Canada

From the critics

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Jun 19, 2020

Thought this was a well researched and written book. Enjoyed it from cover to cover.

⚰️ The authors take an informal but not flippant tone, often directly addressing the reader, in this closely reasoned account of a string of ax murders before the First World War. They even use humor, which some may find out of place in a serious work. However the 'jokes,' as they have been characterized(👇), are never at the expense of the victims or police, only those who attempted to enrich themselves from the sensational aspects of the crimes. It draws attention to the fact that the legal system was ill-equipped to comprehend a series of crimes of this magnitude, and the sad state of journalism. If you're expecting a good, straight-ahead detective story that winds up with the Good Guys putting the designated Bad Guy behind bars, move on. This is a book that's more demanding of the reader than Agatha Christie.
Another viewpoint may be found in "Axes of Evil," which may be more to some tastes, but The Observer isn't recommending it. Hey, even the title is a joke!

Mar 02, 2020

"Was Paul Reed ever given any real opportunity to clear his name?"

Jul 10, 2019

First, I read true crime, historical true crime and other non-fiction genres almost exclusively. My reading history is quite extensive so I've experienced all sorts of writing styles. Second, I don't write reviews unless what I've experienced is superior or egregious. This book, unfortunately, falls on the egregious side.

That said, this is a terrible book. TERRIBLE. I checked it out based on a recommendation from a pod cast I listen to. The way the book was described is being written from the viewpoint (position) of the reader having a conversation with the author. Cool! Love that! Have read books like this before. That tidbit is true, but this particular conversational style is executed very poorly. The book jumps around (albeit with explanations and chapter references) from crime to crime with a bunch of conversational conjecture and terrible jokes interjected. It hammers home the same points repeatedly (in case you didn't catch them the first couple times) which makes the book twice as long as it needs to be.

It is clear there was a ton of research put in to collect the information for each crime. I understand why the author puts forth the information and the rationale used to connect said crimes. I also fully believe the crimes found are connected and even support the evidence of who The Man From the Train was. But the presentation to get from A to Z is almost unbearable. I had to take several breaks from reading it which resulted in having to renew the book in order to struggle through and finish it.

Finish it I did, but it was a beating.

Bill James has other true crime books (his main claim to fame is books on baseball) and has been described as having a "revolutionary" writing style. I may attempt at least one more as I hate to write off an author based on one book. If I do, and the book isn't terrible, I'll consider editing this review with a "but wait..." note.

Jul 09, 2019

While apparently deserving of credit for careful laborious research, this story was coated in terrible writing. Many sections consisted of what seemed to be dictation, including pontificate and the use of curse words as if the writer was speaking colloquially or crudely. Most chapter included verbatim reproduction of old newspaper articles and reams of gory details regarding the murders. Considering the topic, this aspect could be anticipated, yet undesirable, as the writers pursued their theory regarding the identity of the killer.

Although the sections analyzing the various aspects of these crimes were interesting, I do not believe this book or audio book is worth your time.

Aug 18, 2018

I love reading about historic true crime, and this is one of the best books I’ve ever read - and not just in the genre, but period. “The Man From The Train” is well-written, intensively researched with citations, and tells the story of a set of serial killings that took place early in the 20th century. Unlike Jack the Ripper, most people have never heard of this series of murders. If the Jameses (father and daughter) are correct, this killer murdered many more people and was on the prowl for more than a decade, almost coast to coast.

The Jameses begin in medias res, with a killing they believe is in the middle of the extended spree of brutality. They then move forward in time, presenting both the method of the killings and the signature aspects - those that are not related to the actual commission of the crime but is needed for the murderer in some way. For example, some killers feel a need to wash or put makeup on their victims after death. The Jameses painstakingly note the similarities and the differences in killings across the country and present their case for whether they think a case is part of the series or not.

This was not easy research. In one chapter, they recount the differences in forensics and journalism between now and the early 20th century. This gives them the chance to show how accustomed we’ve become to things like fingerprinting (in its infancy at the time), well-funded police forces, and a news media that at least sometimes does more than pay lip service to telling the truth. Frequently arrests were made and then the person released, with and without that release being subsequently publicized. Cars were a new thing, as was indoor plumbing and electricity over much of the country. Yet there are tens of deaths over more than a decade with certain important elements in common.

The one that most caught my attention is that many were performed with an axe, but as a bludgeon instead of using the cutting edge. That is unusual. The Jameses make a point of how common axes were at the time in almost every dwelling, but to strike with the blunt side is noteworthy. They also note the location in reference to at least one and usually multiple railway lines, which would have worked as well for escape as modern interstates.

Then they go back in time to the late 1800s, to try to find the start of the spree. They make the argument that the killings they presented first show an accomplished murderer, and wanted to see if they could pinpoint the first crime. Finally, they present their theory for who the killer may have been.

Frankly, I found “The Man From The Train” to be more engaging than any Jack the Ripper book I’ve ever read. I liked it better than any book by Ann Rule, including “The Stranger Beside Me,” and it blows “Helter Skelter” right out of the water. If you like true crime, you should definitely give this one a chance! Five of five stars.

Jul 19, 2018

An interesting thesis and story about a number of murders mostly in the early 20th century. The book is well researched and the points are well made unfortunately the writing style and narrative suffer from informality and "breaking the fourth wall" A bit long but worth reading if you enjoy the true crime genre.

Jun 06, 2018

This book has a great story in it, but is ruined by awful writing. The narrative is choppy and the writing resembles an eighth grader's rough draft. The book is meticulously researched and the story is fascinating, but the awful prose and clumsy transitions ruined the reading experience

May 07, 2018

An interesting approach to introducing the crimes. The author provides charts of the timelines of crimes and victims at the end of each section of the book. This is well organized and a helpful reference. The writing style is contemporary and objective. A sad tale but well researched and a profound commentary on turn of the century criminal justice in America.

Apr 18, 2018

I agree with one of the reviews that said this book could have used a good editor. This book of 400 plus pages could have easily been reduced to 250 pages. The writing was often redundant and silly. I was expecting a book along the lines of The Devil in the White City, which is far superior to this version of an old Police Gazette. Detailed research doesn't excuse poor writing for this book.

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