Common wisdom holds that the first 48 hours of an investigation are often the most crucial. In these early hours, the evidence has not yet had a chance to be swept away, eyewitnesses are easiest to locate, and weather hasn’t obscured the scene of the crime. But in some cases, the first 48 hours pass unnoticed (or unheeded) by police. For four young women who disappeared on Long Island between 2007 and 2010, it was the search for a different girl altogether that finally brought their cases to light.
The cases in Richard Kolker’s LOST GIRLS have many common threads. The women who disappeared were all in their early 20s and, by many accounts, affectionate and vivacious. They all came from lower- and middle-class backgrounds in the New York tri-state area. Though their familial situations varied, all were in one way or another beloved, as sisters, daughters, friends and mothers. So why the police passivity when their disappearances were first suspected? Besides a desire to possess nice things, the girls had one other thing in common: they were involved in prostitution via Craigslist.
"Kolker is a clear and dispassionate narrator with a flair for creating vivid scenes. Not only does he include the cold facts of the cases, he also seeks out the loved ones and acquaintances of the victims, painting scenes of the women from childhood on."
Kolker’s first book explores how the world’s oldest profession was influenced by a revolutionary invention that forever altered the landscape of prostitution. Where previously prostitutes found themselves reliant on pimps, brothels, or streetwalking, Craigslist allowed individuals to post their own ads, find their own johns, and make their own deals without outside intervention. As a result, it became easier for sex workers to operate independently of organizations. This liberated them in some respects, but also led to increased risks for all parties.
Kolker is a clear and dispassionate narrator with a flair for creating vivid scenes. Not only does he include the cold facts of the cases, he also seeks out the loved ones and acquaintances of the victims, painting scenes of the women from childhood on. However, despite the quality of his research, the victims do begin to blend together. It is impossible to ignore patterns of poverty, abuse, addiction and emotional instability that play out across generations. In addition, Kolker’s desire to produce sympathetic portraits of the victims (probably in anticipation of readers’ potential disrespect for the victims due to their profession) causes him to trot out stale tropes as the women enter adulthood. Though the victims’ decisions to become prostitutes are attributed to any number of things, it is hard to ignore that their work is fueled by a desire to have more money. Kolker is also not immune to revisionism on the part of the victims’ families, who tend to present the women as naïve girls. Obviously, these young women did not deserve to die and are not culpable for their own deaths. Still, it’s hard to believe that they were unaware of the risks of their trade.
The story doesn’t need that much dressing, since the facts are as salacious as they come, involving all sorts of semi-shifty characters and scandalous occurrences. At times the story is stranger than fiction, and the book is impossible to put down, especially because the events described are real. What is left at the end is an overwhelming feeling of injustice and frustration --- even anger --- at the lost promise of each girl’s life. The book also makes clear that these women were, in many ways, victims of circumstance and immense economic and social stratifications.
In the end, it’s uncertain if anyone included here is responsible for the murders, and the cases remain unsolved. What LOST GIRLS does uncover is an extremely dysfunctional and dangerous business model that places all players in harm’s way, and an underworld that is awfully hard to pull yourself out of.
Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on August 2, 2013