Have you ever, like me, stared out of a moving train or car at the waste ground by the side of the track or road and wondered if there’s a dead body lying there? Every now and again, something incongruous like a crumpled piece of coloured fabric or a lumpy bin bag catches your eye and you think ‘could that be a body?’; but by the time the thought is fully formed, you’re further down the track and it’s too late?
The Skeleton Crew tells the story of people who are constantly on the lookout, and who follow the stories of unclaimed bodies found by the side of the road or railway track. It describes a forgotten backwater of investigation – away from the relative ‘glamour’ of police work and forensic science – the vast hoards of private individuals working hard to solve cold cases. This is the story of those dedicated – sometimes obsessed – people who sacrifice time, money and even relationships or sanity to put names to the bodies metaphorically and often literally ‘left by the wayside’. Halber tells of the ‘web-sleuths’ who spend hours at clunky computers scrolling through thousands upon thousands of descriptions of missing people, waiting for that tiny, elusive, spark of recognition. We are introduced to the ‘Facebook for the Dead’ databases such as NamUs and the DoeNetwork, where eerie facial composites or reconstructions sit atop biological profiles, like a morbid dating site. She tells of how their suggestions of potential matches are often overlooked or ignored by the police, and how the world of the cyber detectives has its own culture, customs, language and politics. But for them, the chance of a ‘hit’ – a successful match or positive identification, based on fingerprints, DNA or dental records - is the ultimate prize, keeping them searching even when the odds appear stacked against them.
Through a series of intriguing, interlocking episodes, Halber weaves the stories of the grieving families with those of the unnamed remains languishing in mortuary fridges. She flits between narratives, describing unknown bodies with romantic names like the Lady in the Dunes or Tent Girl. The reader is not allowed to get too comfortable, echoing the desperation of the hunt; and Halber doesn't shy away from gore, recounting autopsies and identifications in forensic detail. This book was shocking and cheering in almost equal measure. The volume of unidentified remains and missing people is very scary, but it is uplifting and moving to think that, behind the scenes of the white suits and the police investigations, there is an army of ordinary philanthropists on the case.
Deborah Halbers’ The Skeleton Crew is available for pre-order here.