We live in an age marked by tragedy: by the all-encompassing fears of the coronavirus pandemic, by George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police and the rage that fueled its aftermath, by the uncertainty of what the coming months might hold.

One reaction to continually being on edge is to engage in a literary escapism of sorts, to dive deep into books that avoid tragedy and either linger on life's superficialities or delve into matters of the heart and the soul but not matters of life and death.

Mark Bowden's latest anthology, "The Case of the Vanishing Blonde," is not that. To be sure, each of the six nonfiction stories goes beyond the police blotter and the court documents to dive into the darkness of human nature. One of his generation's masters of literary nonfiction, Bowden — best known for "Black Hawk Down," his account of the U.S. military's disastrous 1993 raid in Mogadishu to capture a Somali warlord — has focused on seeing the grays in what could be black-and-white crime tales between forces of good and evil. His subjects have included some of the worst actors in modern human history, such as Osama bin Laden and Pablo Escobar.

This new collection includes a story about a sexual assault at an Ivy League fraternity house, a story about a police detective investigating online sex crimes, and a story about a police detective convicted of murdering the wife of a former lover.

It's heavy stuff, but something about the way Bowden approaches these topics makes this book an unexpected salve during this age of anxiety.

It feels a little loathsome to refer to this book as a joy; after all, each story revolves around the worst moments in someone's life. But that's exactly what the book is: an absolute joy to read. Bowden's writing is a reminder that, in all the complexity of an age of upheaval, there is still good, and there is still evil, and the most interesting parts of humanity lie in the gulfs of gray in between.

Take the opening story, "The Incident at Alpha Tau Omega," first published in 1983 in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The story of a campus sexual assault and its aftermath both seems ahead of its time and from a different era. Today, such stories get sorted into the MeToo hashtag, stripping them of nuance. But Bowden's groundbreaking piece is all nuance, and it leaves you wondering what the real moral of the story is.

Bowden's piece about online sex crimes, "why don't u tell me wht ur into," is equally disturbing. A sex-crime detective comes across a potential child sexual predator online; who is going to have any empathy for a potential predator? But Bowden's story delves into the uncertain line between fantasy and reality and the gray areas of entrapment.

Bowden's stories, three of which focus on a private detective named Ken Brennan who is straight out of central casting, do not all fit into the current political moment. He gives a voice to people you may reflexively despise, such as fraternity brothers who took advantage of a drunken classmate. You will not like all his heroes, and you will not despise all his villains. His stories make you think about life's grays.

Best of all? His stories are serious literary journalism, but they won't send you into despair like so much in today's world. You may feel a bit guilty for enjoying them, but Bowden's stories of humanity's darkness double as fast-paced mysteries, and it's easy to simply kick back and enjoy.

Reid Forgrave is a Star Tribune reporter and the author of "Love, Zac," to be published in August by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, N.C. • 612-673-4647

The Case of the Vanishing Blonde
By: Mark Bowden.
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, 400 pages, $26.