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Boston Strangler connection makes for a gripping tale

Boston Strangler connection makes for a gripping tale

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"A Death in Belmont." By Sebastian Junger. Norton. 266 Pages. $23.95.

Sebastian Junger was a baby in 1963 as the events in his new book, "A Death in Belmont," were quickly unfolding.

A black man in Boston was on the verge of a murder conviction when news broke that President Kennedy had been assassinated. The Boston Strangler was on the loose and, it turns out, looking over Junger's shoulder.

Junger, a freelance journalist who described the doomed fate of a Nova Scotia fishing boat in his book "The Perfect Storm," uses his thorough reporting tools to craft his latest true-crime book.

The result is a fascinating work based on the events surrounding a crime and on his family's connection to the Boston Strangler.

The strangling and apparent rape of one of Junger's neighbors in the Boston suburb of Belmont appeared to fit the profile of the serial killer tormenting Boston at the time.

But Roy Smith, a black cleaning man, was the last person to see Bessie Goldberg alive in her home. As the most likely suspect and shrouded in circumstantial evidence, Smith was convicted of Goldberg's murder by an all-white jury.

Smith swore for the rest of his life that he was innocent. Albert DeSalvo, who later admitted to being the Boston Strangler and killing 13 women, would never admit to the Goldberg killing.

The two stories intersect with the fact that on the day of the murder, DeSalvo had been working as a carpenter building an addition to the Junger home, and might have considered murdering Junger's mother.

Junger calls his family's connection to the Boston Strangler a folk tale of sorts. For the most part, that relationship is secondary as he develops the cases of Smith and the Boston Strangler.

Junger makes a plea for Smith's innocence using interviews, police and court records, and copious detail. The possibility that the Boston Strangler killed Goldberg quickly surfaces.

"The entire thing - from his interrogation to his conviction - reeked of the presumption of guilt," Junger writes about Smith's case.

Ultimately, the reader is left with the impossible task of deciding "Who done it?"

Junger has the luxury of hindsight more than 40 years after the fact as he points out missteps and inefficiencies of investigators. He takes advantage of that to pick apart issues of discrimination and the death penalty with strong and opinionated conviction.

"The Federal Aviation Administration would never tolerate an airline that lost one plane out of a hundred; why should the justice system," Junger writes while targeting flaws in the capital punishment system.

Other cases in which black men were wrongfully found guilty and later exonerated are highlighted as Junger portrays Smith's trial as "a microcosm of the entire political system."

Junger's ability to craft prose makes most passages in "A Death in Belmont" glide along. But on a few occasions, pages become heavy and cumbersome with courtroom proceedings and legal mumbo-jumbo.

Descriptions of blooming cotton fields that "turn the land white as if it had snowed" and comparing grief to a continent "that a lifetime of walking could not cover" show how far Junger has come since his macho fishermen's tale.

But his blending of such artistic license with the responsibilities of journalism could bother a skeptical reader.

To create some vivid detail, Junger occasionally writes about events that are presumed to have happened or that likely happened. But that's no reason to think that this retelling of history is fictionalized, as some have charged.

As he did with "The Perfect Storm," Junger offers full disclosure of how he constructed the book, honoring the facts and quoting only what people actually said.

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