Review: Bestial

Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American MonsterBestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster
by Harold Schechter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster / B00383YJFI

I am a very big fan of Harold Schechter's historical true crime books. While the questionable covers and book subtitles seem sometimes a little over-the-top, the actual contents of the books are top-notch in my opinion. Schechter writes in a very engaging style that is accessible to the audience, and handles the facts of the case in a chronological order as an easy-to-follow narrative. He is careful to cite his sources as he goes and is very clear when we encounter gaps in the record where we don't know what happened. Any speculation on his part is marked plainly and we are walked through the logical steps. I appreciate that in a crime author, as too many authors are willing to blur fact and fiction.

This book covers the life and death of serial killer Earle Leonard Nelson (sometimes known as Ferral instead of Nelson) and styled in the press as "The Gorilla Man" and "The Dark Strangler". Nelson is believed to have murdered at least 22 people and to have perhaps attacked twice that number, and holds the dubious honor of "third most prolific serial killer in American history." Most modern readers have never heard of him, and I certainly hadn't, so this was a very interesting and engaging read. (Wikipedia tells me he was a source of inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 film "Shadow of a Doubt". Who knew? Not me.)

I never quite know how to trigger warn on books that are about serial killers, because obviously the material in here is going to be pretty grim, but I should note that Nelson's crimes included sexual assault and he also killed a few children who crossed his path, so be aware of that if you have associated triggers. I will say that one of the reasons I like Schechter so much as an author is because he handles delicate topics with care and isn't irreverent or flippant or jokey about the victims. He gives them grace and dignity, which I appreciate.

Another aspect I like about this book is seeing the historical context of detective work. I hadn't realized that fingerprinting crime scenes was something already doable in the 1920s; for some reason, I had thought that came later in the timeline. It's interesting to see how serial killing of Nelson's sort was only possible once cars became widespread; he had to stay mobile and move from town to town in order to keep from being caught. The witness statements are surprising in their detail (people used to pay more attention to clothes back in the day, or police were better trained to elicit detail from memory??) and the police are... well, some of them are good, and some of them kept insisting that women were committing suicide and stuffing their own dead bodies into trunks. So, you know, a mixed bag of competency. I did find it interesting that Nelson might not have been caught if he hadn't fled to Canada: he didn't know the words and mannerisms to keep from being identified as an American, so he wasn't able to blend in the way he'd done in America.

If you like historical true crime at all, I really recommend this book as a fascinating deep-dive into a strange man who really did seem to be some sort of real life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

~ Ana Mardoll


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