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Lost Girls (Kolker)

Lost Girls:  An Unsolved American Mystery
Robert Kolker, 2013
HarperCollins
416 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780062183637



Summary
Award-winning investigative reporter Robert Kolker delivers a haunting and humanizing account of the true-life search for a serial killer still at large on Long Island, in a compelling tale of unsolved murder and Internet prostitution.

One late spring evening in 2010, Shannan Gilbert, after running through the oceanfront community of Oak Beach screaming for her life, went missing. No one who had heard of her disappearance thought much about what had happened to the twenty-four-year-old: she was a Craigslist prostitute who had been fleeing a scene—of what, no one could be sure. The Suffolk County Police, too, seemed to have paid little attention—until seven months later, when an unexpected discovery in a bramble alongside a nearby highway turned up four bodies, all evenly spaced, all wrapped in burlap. But none of them Shannan's.

There was Maureen Brainard-Barnes, last seen at Penn Station in Manhattan three years earlier, and Melissa Barthelemy, last seen in the Bronx in 2009. There was Megan Waterman, last seen leaving a hotel in Hauppage, Long Island, just a month after Shannan's disappearance in 2010, and Amber Lynn Costello, last seen leaving a house in West Babylon a few months later that same year. Like Shannan, all four women were petite and in their twenties, they all came from out of town to work as escorts, and they all advertised on Craigslist and its competitor, Backpage.

In a triumph of reporting—and in a riveting narrative—Robert Kolker presents the first detailed look at the shadow world of escorts in the Internet age, where making a living is easier than ever and the dangers remain all too real. He has talked exhaustively with the friends and family of each woman to reveal the three-dimensional truths about their lives, the struggling towns they came from, and the dreams they chased. And he has gained unique access to the Oak Beach neighborhood that has found itself the focus of national media scrutiny—where the police have flailed, the body count has risen, and the neighbors have begun pointing fingers at one another.

There, in a remote community, out of sight of the beaches and marinas scattered along the South Shore barrier islands, the women's stories come together in death and dark mystery. Lost Girls is a portrait not just of five women, but of unsolved murder in an idyllic part of America, of the underside of the Internet, and of the secrets we keep without admitting to ourselves that we keep them. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Robert Kolker is a New York magazine contributing editor and a finalist for the National Magazine Award. He writes frequently about issues surrounding criminal justice and the unforeseen impact of extraordinary events on everyday people. He lives with his family in Brooklyn. This is his first book. (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews
Robert Kolker's Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is, physically, a well-made book. Its cover image is crisp and haunting. Someone has paid close attention to this volume's many maps. They are stylish and, a rarity, actually helpful. This sense of mastery carries over into Mr. Kolker's lean but ductile prose. Reading this true-crime book, you're reminded of the observation that easy reading is hard writing.
New York Times - Dwight Garner


Kolker indulges in zero preaching and very little sociology; his is the lens of a classic police reporter. And often in Lost Girls, the facts are eloquent in themselves.
Newsday


Some true crime books are exploitative…others grasp at serious literature. Robert Kolker’s new book falls into the latter category.
New York Observer


Rich, tragic...monumental...true-crime reporting at its best.
Washington Post


Kolker is a careful writer and researcher...[he paints] a far more nuanced picture of each young woman than any screaming headline could.
Miami Herald


Through extensive interviews with the victims’ families and friends, Kolker creates compassionate portraits of the murdered young women, and uncovers the forces that drove them from their respective home towns into risky, but lucrative, careers as prostitutes in a digital age.
New Yorker


In stark contrast to the ugliness of the story, Kolker’s sad tale of five young women linked by the tragic circumstances of their disappearances is beautifully and provocatively written.... Just the right amount of detail will make all but the hardest-hearted empathetic. Add a baffling whodunit that remains, as the subtitle indicates, unsolved, and you have a captivating true crime narrative that’s sure to win new converts and please longtime fans of the genre.
Publishers Weekly


Kolker's portrait of the young women and their families will draw readers in despite the frustration they will feel at the book's end. Although all five of the victims profiled were sex workers, Kolker does not condescend or dismiss the women as lost causes.... Verdict: Readers may find themselves checking in with the case in the future, hoping for some justice for the lost girls. —Kate Sheehan, Waterbury, CT
Library Journal


What sets his investigation apart from many true-crime tomes, however, is the attention he pays to the girls' back stories....  Kolker also does a fine job of describing the girls' lives without patronizing their decisions.... Most commendably, he points out inconsistencies and dubious motives on the part of some of his interviewees; one mother, who had little to do with her daughter while she was alive, reinvented herself as a crusader for justice.... An important examination of the socioeconomic and cultural forces that can shape a woman's entry into prostitution.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also, consider these LitLovers broad talking points to help start a discussion for Lost Girls:
1. Does the fact that the young women were call girls, sex workers, affect how you feel about their loss?

2. Kolker does an extraordinary job of elucidating the girls' backgrounds. Which backstory do you find most sympathetic? Discuss the forces that drove each of them into the dubious profession she pursued.

3. Talk about the communication devices that facilitated the girls' entry into the world of prostitution. How can society protect its young women given the ease and anonymity of modern technology?

4. Discuss the numerous theories put forth by law enforcement officials, the community, and even some of the suspsects. Which, if any of them, do you find credible?

(Questions by LitLovers. We'll add specific ones if and when they're made available by the publisher.)

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