Book Review: American Predator by Maureen Callahan

Journalist and author Maureen Callahan’s American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century exposes readers to one of the most calculating, coldblooded, and mysterious serial killers ever, Israel Keyes.

While most people can easily name serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, few know about Keyes, and there are many reasons for that. In this book, Callahan digs into Keyes’ past, his confessions, and even the dark possibilities of actions he never spoke about to show how one man killed his way through many US states without being detected.

Keyes was living in Alaska when he was caught, arrested in relation to the disappearance of a young woman. He was a construction worker who was devoted to his daughter. He had a military past and a strange, dark childhood not many people knew about. However, under that veneer of normalcy, Keyes was a man capable of kidnapping, raping, and murdering victims, and he had no qualms about chopping them into pieces before disposing of their bodies.

. . . she was “captivated by how a killer of this magnitude could go undetected by law enforcement for over a decade. And so began a project that consumed her for the next several years”

 

According to the book’s description, when Callahan first heard about Israel Keyes back in 2012, she was “captivated by how a killer of this magnitude could go undetected by law enforcement for over a decade. And so began a project that consumed her for the next several years—uncovering the true story behind how the FBI ultimately caught Israel Keyes, and trying to understand what it means for a killer like Keyes to exist.” Her awe shines through in American Predator, and Callahan is just as surprised at Keyes abilities (he knew how to repair almost anything, could drive for days without sleep, was a sniper, knew how to build bombs, and could get his shackles off, to name a few). She wasn’t the only surprised by Keyes. Even FBI profilers were at a loss for words when it came to telling investigators what they’d found:

The Bureau’s top criminal profilers were at a loss. The only thing they could tell the team was that Keyes was one of the most terrifying subjects they had ever encountered. There was no precedent for a serial killer with his MO: no victim type; no fixed location for hunting, killing, and burying; putting thousands of miles between himself and his victims; caches buried all over the United States. He avoided detection through traveling.

Although the FBI has not made the majority of Keyes’ investigation documents available, Callahan, with the help of some lawyers, was able to get some through a Freedom of Information Act request, and what she found in there, along with audio from Keyes’ interviews with the FBI and other bibliography, allowed her to create a chilling portrait of a man raised almost like a feral animal who went on to become a slippery killer who killed in a variety of states and evaded detection for almost fifteen years. Keyes’ killings were atrocious, but the coldness of his character and the way he manipulated the investigators, going so far as to demand an execution date in exchange for information that would lead to more bodies, are what make American Predator an outstanding nonfiction book that fans of true crime need to read:

Keyes thought about holding his victims, whoever they might be, in a small-town church, raping and torturing these strangers as they begged for their lives to a God who didn’t exist. Keyes would maybe stage their bodies on the altar, a tableau of sex and mortification waiting to be discovered by a priest, a nun, or better, the next day’s congregation. Or maybe he would just burn the church down with his victims in it.

The writing in American Predator is superb. Callahan reports her findings and chronicles Keyes’ actions meticulously, but her instinctive reaction to being in contact with the material, her visceral reaction to learning about this killer, is something that permeates the text. Luckily, it’s also something that’s contagious, so it quickly starts to affect the reader as well.

This book works on many levels and offers a very complete look at Keyes’ life. However, there are two parts of it that stand out and push it into must-read territory. The first is the opening of the book. The abduction and subsequent retrieval of body parts from the bottom of an iced-over lake that comprise the first part of the book could easily compete against the most gripping contemporary thrillers. Then, somewhere in the last third of the book, the narrative of Keyes’ early life, which included almost yearly moves, animal torture, no schooling, abuse, a plethora of cults that ranged from white supremacy to the Amish, and living in tents and houses with no electricity or running water, is a truly unsettling read.

Maureen Callahan is a talented writer with a knack for detail and an ability to include dialogue from tapes into her narrative. This, along with the shocking events that made up Israel Keyes’ life, make American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century one of the most engaging and powerful true crime reads of the year. There are plenty of other surprises besides the elements discussed here, but those are best left unmentioned so that readers have the chance to discover them while experiencing the book themselves.

Want more true crime? Click here for Sandie Jones’ essay,

London’s Serial Killers: Why They Were Caught

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