Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Man From the Train by Bill James

I requested this from NetGalley because I find true crime fascinating and I read that the author is a baseball statistician so I was hoping that this is a book that uses data to solve the crime. Unfortunately, while the cases are extremely tragic and told in a fascinating way, the book suffers from a lack of focus.

So from around 1900 to 1912, a series of murders started to take place near railway lines. All of them were senseless, cruel murders which had a few points in common - such as an axe being a weapon, no robbery, no warning, and a few more. The authors are convinced that this is the work of one man, something that the press only seemed to realise a few years after the murders start (and by then a few people had been convicted for the murders).

While I do agree that the there was probably a serial on the loose, I'm not really satisfied with the arguments made. There are sentences like "No source says so, but the Meadows family had to have hunting dogs; I just can't see a family like this not having hunting dogs" (used when hypothesising how the crime might have taken place) which are quite scary because I would not want anyone to assume things that cannot be proven as fact.

Plus I was expecting a more mathematical look at the crime and the closest that the book came to maths was to ask how many murders would one expect there to be with the characteristics of the crime and say "the mathematical answer is 0."

I don't know if I'm remembering my stats wrong but while the answer may by very close to zero, I wouldn't have expected an answer like this. I did expect the author to calculate the probability of such a case happening and then derive the number of murders so a flat out "answer is 0" with no working made me disappointed.

Narrative-wise, the book basically goes through all related crimes and only discusses the probable murder at the end. This is probably a personal preference but I wish only the relevant cases were discussed. There are a lot of murders as it is, and to read something horrific and then see something along the lines of "but we don't think this was part of the serial killing" feels like there wasn't much thought into what should have ended up in the book.

As for the murderer, he seems to have been identified with a gut feeling because all I saw was an account of his 'first case' which was like all the others. Not much else was presented to show how he was linked to the murders, although the authors did theorise that he's behind a gruesome killing in Kaifeck a few years later.

This book also has one of the strongest authorial voices that I've read and I suppose it's so that we end up believing what the author believes. I suppose whether you like or dislike the book will also depend a lot on whether you like the authorial voice and how heavy it was. Personally, I'm not a fan of the puns and the digressions but it didn't make me want to stop reading the book.

Basically, this book introduced me to this horrific crime that I never knew existed. I do agree with the authors that this was the work of a serial killer, but I'm not a fan of how the case was made and I'm not entirely convinced that the man that they fingered is the real culprit (although he did commit a terrible murder too). It's too bad that the book didn't use much maths to make a case - that would have been interesting.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.


  1. I wasn't familiar with these crimes either. That's too bad it wasn't as focused as it could have been. Was this the author's first true crime book? I agree, it would have been interesting had the author used more math throughout the book.

    1. I believe it is! Perhaps I'll come across another (more focused) book about this in the future.


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