Around dawn on Aug. 11, 2008, Marie, an 18-year-old in Lynnwood, Wash., just north of Seattle, awoke to find a masked intruder in the bedroom of her apartment. A troubled young woman who’d survived a string of foster families and school uprootings, Marie was raped repeatedly as the man followed a careful, military-style protocol: removal of DNA and other physical evidence, posing Marie in photographs to suggest consent. A botched investigation concluded that Marie had fabricated her account for attention; suddenly she found herself charged with making a false report.
Based on their Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “A False Report,” T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong have written a captivating page-turner that depicts the almost three-year spree of a serial rapist across two states.
The book’s narrative is grounded in Marie, but brilliantly cuts back and forth between her story and subsequent sexual assaults in Denver suburbs. There’s a gripping “you are there” immediacy as crackerjack officers and criminalists pore over scant evidence — a wisp of skin left on a stuffed animal, videos of a white truck canvassing apartment complexes — before finally homing in on their man.
Two charismatic female detectives, Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot, piece together a mosaic of a predator who methodically plotted his crimes even as his choice of victim ran the gamut: Galbraith “knew the universe of women who had been raped looked identical to the universe of women. They could be mothers, teens, sex workers. They could live in mansions or in flophouses. They could be homeless or suffer from schizophrenia. They could be black or white or Asian.”
Through a feat of detective work, and a couple of lucky breaks, the Colorado team apprehends the culprit, eventually linking him to Marie.
It would be all too easy to compare the book to a Grisham novel or an episode of “Law & Order: SVU,” but to do so would trivialize its achievement. “A False Report” is framed as a police procedural but illuminates the agonizing realities of rape culture as well as the fractures in our criminal justice system. The vast majority these crimes are committed by an acquaintance, yet Miller and Armstrong intriguingly highlight the back story and motivation of one of the 1 percent of men who commit stranger rape.
Drawing on extensive interviews with the rapist, Miller and Armstrong enter his head in a few hair-raising chapters, tracing his perverse compulsion to childhood, his moral struggle with “the monster,” his ambivalence about his double life — all indicating a profound neurobiological misfire.
The authors flesh out their through-line with vivid portraits of attacker, victims and police, speaking powerfully to our cultural moment (even as they skirt the thorny issue of due process). Rich in forensic detail, deftly written and paced, “A False Report” is an instant true-crime classic, taking its rightful place beside Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter” and Dave Cullen’s “Columbine.”
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America
By: T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong.
Publisher: Crown, 291 pages, $28.