Mayhem and Murder: A Survey of Late-Summer Crime Books

Labor Day is upon us. In the book world, this means the literary heavyweights start rolling out next week. You know, the massive doorstop tomes, the would-be award winners, the serious books designed to keep you curled up in front of a fire for hours, pondering the meaning of life.

Yet not all summer books are as frothy as sea foam, and to automatically put the ones you haven't gotten to aside in favor of ostensibly more momentous works is doing yourself a disservice.

Weeks after finishing Robert Kolker's Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (Harper) and Tom Kizzia's Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier (Crown), I'm still thinking about them—about the nature of humanity and family, of abuse and absolution. Would that I could say the same about the much-hyped Night Film (Random House), Marisha Pessl's long-awaited second novel, but we'll get to that in a minute.

I'll start with Pilgrim's Wilderness, since I read it first, in one long gulp of a Friday night. It's rare that a work of non-fiction keeps me up until 3 a.m., until the very last page has been turned, but this book did.

Pilgrim's Wilderness tells the story of Papa Pilgrim, aka Robert Hale, who moves to a mining ghost town in rural Alaska with his wife and 14 children in 2002. At first the town embraces the Pilgrims, whose old-fashioned Christianity and homesteading ways seem to fit right in with the quirky frontiersmen of McCarthy. But then the family bulldozes a path to town straight through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The National Park Service sues, and a battle between conservative property rights activists and environmentalists follows.

All of this would be fascinating enough on its own—and it was indeed the impetus for Kizzia's involvement in the story, which he covered at the time for the Anchorage Daily News. But the story of Hale and his family is even more compelling, as Kizzia's recounting slowly peels away, layer by layer, the public façade of Papa Pilgrim.

Did Hale murder his first wife, the daughter of Texas Gov. John Connally? Did the Pilgrims move to Alaska from New Mexico because they were fleeing local police? And was Hale's tempestuous relationship with his beloved oldest daughter more sinister than it seemed?

As the Pilgrims go from activists championed by Sarah Palin to musicians beloved by Portland hipsters to a horrifying fall from grace, Kizzia's clear-eyed depiction never wavers. His even-handed and, at times, sympathetic treatment of the Pilgrims makes the full reveal of Hale's monstrous behavior that much more appalling—and the tale of redemption that ends the book that much more heart-wrenching.

Unlike Pilgrim's Wilderness, Lost Girls doesn't end neatly. There's not an ending, not yet, and there very well may never be one.

Kolker, a writer for New York magazine, delves deep into the lives of five prostitutes whose bodies were found on Long Island in 2010 and 2011. Four of the women appear to have been killed by the same person—there are varying theories about the fifth—but the crime remains unsolved. Also unclear is whether other bodies found nearby are the work of the same killer, or if the remote stretches of Jones, West Gilgo, and Oak Beaches were appealing dumping grounds for more than one murderer.

Yet Kolker's aim is not to solve the killings or suggest a new suspect the police have overlooked, like so many true crime writers do. Instead, Kolker paints a portrait of the five women's lives and that of their families—what drove them to prostitution, and, specifically, what drove them to post their services on Craigslist. There are broken families, abusive pimps, and drugs, but the stories of Maureen, Melissa, Shannan, Megan, and Amber are so much more complex than the usual tired cliches, much to Kolker's credit.

"I can't believe they're doing all this for a whore," Kolker quotes one unnamed television journalist as saying at a memorial service for the dead women. And Kolker has admitted in interviews that he was equally dismissive when the story first appeared on his radar. But, as he notes, that's what the killers are counting on—no one cares about prostitutes, especially ones that go missing.

Except, as Kolker ably demonstrates, that isn't true. There are families, even estranged ones, left behind. Children. Friends. Lovers. Mentors. Lost Girls walks a fine line between pathos and horror, and it's an important depiction of lives all too rarely left unseen.

Night Film also focuses on a life unseen—that of a reclusive film director named Stanislas Cordova, who hasn't given an interview since 1977 or made a movie since the 1990s. Cordova is presented as kind of a cross between Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski, except his films are even more graphic, so much so that they've inspired a copycat killing and have been banned from circulation.

Investigative journalist Scott McGrath is obsessed with Cordova and thinks there may be something even more sinister about his work. Could any of the films actually be high-art snuff films? After Cordova's daughter dies in a mysterious fall from an abandoned building, McGrath sets out to find the truth about Cordova for once and for all.

The set up of Night Film is initially engaging, but Pessl's prose, so captivating in Special Topics in Calamity Physics, quickly falls flat. While Night Film is clearly meant to be a work of noir—just look at the title—McGrath embodies all the cliches of would-be Sam Spades with none of the nuance. It's unclear, at points, if he actually has a personality. His sidekicks, a hipster bro with a drug problem and a sickly sweet coat-check girl, are even worse. The book also relies on the most willfully obtuse and egregious interpretations of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" I have ever come across, which was almost enough to prevent me from finishing the book.

But finish I did. The ending of Night Film is unsatisfying, but I was so thankful to be done with the woefully overlong 512 pages that I didn't even care. The book has an app you can download if you want even more content. I can't imagine why anyone would bother. Please, do yourself a favor, and don't read this book.