The Annals of Unsolved Crime by Edward Jay Epstein “re-investigates” notorious, mysterious, and unsolved crimes from the past 200 years (available March 12, 2013).
You might be forgiven for wondering how investigative journalist Edward Jay Epstein sleeps at night. The man has made a career of reporting on murky, unsettling, often unsolved murders and other crimes—most of them high-profile—and even after a case has been brought to an official conclusion, he just can’t let it go. It’s as if he’s perpetually living that moment right before you drop off to sleep, when your brain suddenly floods with worries, fears, and unanswered questions destined to plague you into a bout of insomnia.
Many of us possess a healthy degree of instinctive skepticism about what we’re offered as the “official story” on just about any subject. If we’re mystery and crime fiction fans we tend to question even more—Did it really happen that way? Isn’t there another explanation?—because there’s a budding detective inside us all.
Epstein goes us one better since, as a journalist writing for publications such as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, he has access to sources and documents the general public does not. Thus, his skepticism is based on more than gut instinct and common sense.
Whether it’s the Zodiac Killer or Amanda Knox, the Black Dahlia Murders or the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Epstein is unsatisfied with the conclusions drawn by law enforcement and/or “the powers that be.” And he has a point:
I have found in my journalistic career that…the cases from which I learned the most—and that most intrigued me—were cases that I could not solve. Some of the most high-profile crimes in history also lack a satisfactory solution because the basic facts of the case remain suspect. Napoleon defined history as “the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon,” which raises the question of whether such agreements proceed from facts or from political expediency.
The more of these essays you read, the more you’re inclined to believe it’s the latter.
There are 35 cases covered here, including a revisiting of the John F. Kennedy assassination investigation for which Epstein is best known. (His career-making book, Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth, was published in 1966.)
Many of these cases, such as Jack the Ripper, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and the death of JonBenet Ramsey, have been sliced, diced, and dissected repeatedly over the years, yet remain inconclusive. Others, such as “The Vanishings”—the systematic abductions of Japanese teens and young adults by the North Korean government in the late 1970s and early 1980s—are shocking, both because of their bizarre nature and because most of us probably know nothing about them. A government program to kidnap citizens of another country for… Re-education? Terrorism? Drug trafficking? Ransom? We still don’t know how many people were abducted, why they were taken, and where they are now. But, as Epstein explains in a brief, but memorable chapter, we have a pretty good idea of who took them.
What is clear…is that because a theory appears to be paranoid does not mean that it is wrong. In this case, the parents who believed that their missing children had been kidnapped by an alien government turned out to be right in a spectacular way: The alien government, North Korea, returned some of the victims.
Whether you’re a true crime devotee or simply someone who loves a good story, you’ll find things you didn’t know—maybe things you would never imagine—all served up in concise chapters in The Annals of Unsolved Crime. And knowing all this, you might well ask yourself: how does anyone sleep at night?
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Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.