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Journalist Sebastian Junger was just an infant in Belmont, Mass., in 1963, when a 63-year-old woman from town named Bessie Goldberg was found raped, strangled, and left for dead on her living-room floor. Committed during the terror reign of the Boston Strangler, it was the first homicide in the quiet suburb’s history. Belmont police officers, unaccustomed to investigating such grisly scenes, had to type their notes on traffic forms.
Apparently the crime also left its mark on young Junger’s consciousness. More than 40 years after the killing, the author has chosen to follow up his wildly successful pop disaster tale, The Perfect Storm, with A Death in Belmont, his thorough if inconclusive examination of that decades-old crime, the subsequent trial, and the life and times of the convict who may or may not have done it. At the heart of this story is a simple question: Did a black man do time for a crime against a white woman that he didn’t commit? Considering Junger has staked his career on mystery, it’s no surprise that the author revels in ambiguity here or that his exploration of Goldberg’s murder yields no firm answers in the end. As a long-form writer, he’s starting to show that he’s most comfortable pursuing stories in which no one has survived to tell the real tale.
Junger’s book shares more similarities than its title with Dina Temple-Raston’s A Death in Texas, about the infamous 1998 murder-by-dragging of James Byrd Jr. Like Temple-Raston, Junger sets out to explore the larger issue of race in America through the lens of a single, horrific act. Bessie Goldberg’s body had scarcely grown cold by the time investigators had their lead in her killing: Roy Smith, an Oxford, Miss., native who’d moved north to Boston, had been cleaning Goldberg’s house that day, and was probably the last person to see her alive. “A black man was not a common sight in Belmont in 1963,” Junger writes in typically lean fashion, “and virtually every good citizen who had seen him walking down Pleasant Street that afternoon remembered him.”
Smith appears the perfect suspect—a transient, a thief, a heavy drinker, and a convict several times over who’d been locked up for attempted murder and done time at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm. And yet, like an experienced defense lawyer with all the time in the world, Junger manages to poke holes in the state’s circumstantial case: How is it that there was no injury to Smith after a presumably violent struggle? Why would a seasoned criminal like Smith carry out a murder he was bound to get caught for—in a virtually all-white town, no less? As Smith himself tells investigators, during one of the most compelling of Junger’s novel-like scenes, “My home is in Mississippi…There’s no way I’d take no white woman because I love my neck, you understand?”
But most of all, what about the fact that the circumstances of Goldberg’s death nearly mirrored the Boston stranglings, which Smith was determined not to have committed?
In a bizarre twist, the man who would later confess to the serial murders, Albert DeSalvo, was in Belmont the day of Goldberg’s death, working on an addition to the Junger home. (The book includes a photo of, among others, DeSalvo and the author, who was roughly a year old.) Sure, DeSalvo, a longtime sex offender from Boston, was considered by many to be a blowhard, and to this day plenty of Strangler buffs don’t buy his confessions. But Junger, while acknowledging these doubts, works hard to put forth the possibility that Goldberg’s murder may have been at DeSalvo’s hands.
Which is too bad for his readers. The chapters on Smith, a one-time cotton-picker who led a hardscrabble life common to many a Deep South transplant, is far more worthy of our time—and Junger’s efforts—than those on DeSalvo, who’s already been written about extensively. Junger’s writing on serial killing in general is several cuts above the typical pulp you’ll find on the true-crime rack, but a reader might nonetheless walk away from the more lurid passages feeling like a good, clean shower is in order. That said, there are some gripping moments when DeSalvo recounts his life and alleged killings—his confessions have been published before—with bone-chilling lyricism: “We used to lie under a wharf near Maverick Square where the penny ferryboats came across from the Boston side and listen to the ship whistles in the harbor, funny, lonely sounds and the water slapping against the supports and the gulls out there sounding like cats.”
The case Junger puts forward for Smith’s possible innocence sometimes has the uncomfortable feel of advocacy. In the run-up to Belmont’s release, Bessie Goldberg’s daughter, Leah—who is still convinced Smith is the killer—told Boston Magazine that Junger was trying “to force a story that wasn’t there,” echoing similar charges that plagued the author after the publication of The Perfect Storm. (Some felt that Junger’s unflattering portrayals of two particular characters in that book heaped some culpability for the Andrea Gail disaster upon two men who didn’t necessarily deserve it.) In a way, the younger Goldberg is right: Junger’s fixation on police procedure and matters of jurisprudence—he lards many a page by explaining such concepts as reasonable doubt, circumstantial evidence, and voluntary manslaughter, as if we live in a world without Court TV—ultimately detract from the worthwhile narrative of Smith’s life, as he evolves into an old-timer convict who still maintains his innocence.
But even there Junger is hamstrung. He can’t interview Smith—the man died in 1976—and must rely largely on documentation from court and prison records. So when it comes to matters of Smith’s heart and mind, Junger can’t offer much beyond conjecture like this: “It is possible that at some point during his long incarceration, Roy Smith had the strange thought that he’d made more of himself in prison than he ever had on the outside.” That there is the sound of a reporter stretching his words beyond his material.The folks at W.W. Norton have predictably hyped Belmont as “the most intriguing and original crime story since In Cold Blood”—an appropriate book for comparison, if only to illuminate what Junger is lacking. At such mealy-mouthed moments as the one above, we start to understand why Truman Capote spent all those hours in a Kansas prison cell, teasing the life and misery from Perry Smith as he sat on death row.
In Belmont, we see the journalist’s trade-off in pursuing a story whose main players are all buried: Junger assumes the right to ruminate on their thoughts and the confidence to write declaratively about their lives, but answers to the big questions elude him. Eventually, he winds up pondering the slipperiness of truth, turning the story’s inscrutability into the story itself.
“One of the conceits of my profession is that…it can pry open the world in all its complexity and contradiction and find out exactly what happened in a certain place on a certain day,” Junger writes. “As I did my research I came to understand that not only was this story far messier than the one I’d grown up with, but that I would never know for sure what had actually happened in the Goldberg house that day.”
And you can’t help but wonder if Junger prefers it that way, at least as a writer. Rarely is a true story as perfectly ambiguous as this one is, and at one point Junger suggests why that might be. “The most interesting thing about some stories,” he tells us, “is all the things that could be true. And maybe it’s in the pursuit of those things that you understand the world in its deepest, most profound sense.” But that piece of literary pondering only serves to pose one more question that Junger may never answer for us: Should a talented journalist be prizing uncertainty over answers? CP