Bill James knows a thing or two about research. He’s the baseball analyst who invented sabermetrics, the data-based strategy made famous by the “Moneyball” book and film adaptation. Now in his late 60s, James has made a surprising career shift by writing about true crime, and with the help of his daughter Rachel may have stumbled upon something truly spectacular.
“The Devil came to Villisca on June 9, 1912,” they begin, demonstrating a flair for the dramatic that permeates “The Man From the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery.” In the middle of the night, someone broke into the home of an Iowa businessman and murdered eight people with the blunt side of an ax, including six children. “I apologize for the need to write this sentence,” Bill writes, “but the heads of all of the victims had been beaten to a pulp.”
The Villisca murders remain the Midwest’s strangest unsolved mystery. Even stranger, a series of similar attacks occurred across the country, all within a few miles of railroad tracks, all with the same modus operandi: families killed in their sleep with the blunt side of an ax, their bodies often stacked atop one another after death.
Early 20th-century police were unable to connect the crimes, but Bill and Rachel may have cracked the case by searching through thousands of old newspapers. In fact, they don’t just reveal the Villisca ax murderer’s identity — they also claim he was responsible for up to 100 additional murders across the country.
Beginning in Iowa, the bulk of the book is an exhaustive account of every incident that may have been the work of “The Man From the Train,” which range all the way from Florida to Washington state, including more than two dozen Midwestern murders in Iowa, Kansas and Illinois.
Though all well told, the chapters begin to feel as relentless and repetitive as “The Part About the Crimes” in Roberto Bolaño’s classic novel, “2666.” But the book shines when we get to see the Jameses’ thinking. Like the recent Netflix documentary “The Keepers,” it’s fun to watch these amateur detectives solve a puzzle.
And solve it they do — after 400 pages, when Rachel discovers the killer’s first crime way back in 1898. Did they get it right? I’m pretty sure they did. Either way, the final twist in the story — set 10 years after the Villisca murders on the other side of the Atlantic — gave me chills.
Adam Morgan is editor in chief of the Chicago Review of Books. He writes about books, culture and Chicago in the Guardian, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Chicago magazine and elsewhere.
The Man From the Train
By: Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James.
Publisher: Scribner, 464 pages, $30.