The victims were all white, the children of lower-middle-class America. Some had graduated from high school, some had not. Two had children. Most had worked at minimum-wage jobs, often at fast-food establishments. One had been a hairdresser for a time. Their backgrounds variously involved broken homes, foster families, alcohol and drug abuse, trailer parks, and children handed over to parents or grandparents. The reason they embraced prostitution is no mystery: money.
One story introduces the sisters Kim Overstreet and Amber Lynn Costello. As a girl, Costello was allegedly raped by an older man. A few years later, Overstreet, the older sister, was a college student in North Carolina when she met an enterprising fellow student who ran Coed Confidential, which advertised “entertainment” for men. In theory, its services stopped with stripping and dancing, but when the women went on a call, they were free to make lucrative side deals.
“The girls were making $800 a night or more, just like that, while their friends were working eight or ten hours a day for ten dollars an hour,” Kolker reports. Later, the sisters made their way to New York. At one point, Kolker says, Costello was earning $4,500 a week and spending $3,500 of it on heroin. After Costello vanished — even after her remains were found — Overstreet kept turning tricks. The money, Kolker notes, was as addictive as the drugs.
The murders went undetected until an escort named Shannon Gilbert was driven to see a man in the small, nearby community of Oak Beach. She fled the house in hysterics, eluding both her client and her waiting driver, and raced into the night. Eventually, her remains were found in a nearby marsh, near the home of a colorful, controversial doctor. Suspicion fell on the doctor, but, despite gossip by his neighbors and thunder on the Internet, no charges have been filed. It was Gilbert’s disappearance that inspired the searches that uncovered the burlap-wrapped remains of the others.
The final half of the book deals with the police investigation, such as it was, and with the families. Grief brought them together for meetings and vigils near the crime scenes, but friction developed as some mothers were thought to be too fond of expressing themselves in the media.
Kolker details the changes that the Internet has brought to prostitution. Previously, escort services and pimps might have provided at least some protection for the women, although they also tended to wind up with much of the money. With the Internet, women can freelance, dealing directly with customers, but they usually have only a telephone conversation to guide them before they go alone to meet a man who may be drunk or homicidal, or both.
The moral I draw from this richly detailed, terribly sad book is that, since prostitution will never be eliminated, it should be legalized. If people who work as prostitutes were employed by well-regulated brothels, like those that exist in Nevada, they would be far safer, sexual diseases would be minimized and taxes would be paid. But our puritanical, hypocritical society — acting through lawmakers who proclaim “family values” but are not infrequently caught with their pants down — chooses to keep the oldest profession in the shadows, where predatory men kill foolish, often troubled women, often with impunity.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries for Book World.