[Note: Not only am I an author, I am also an avid reader. It is my hope to offer periodic book reviews to give you a glimpse at my bookshelf, and hopefully encourage you to pick up a good book. Most of what I read is from a Christian worldview, although I do read some secular books from time to time.]
The Michigan Murders
By Edward Keyes
Published 1976 by Reader’s Digest Press
I’m not really sure this post should be classified as a book review – as this book is old and not one you can just run to your local Barnes & Noble or Books a Million to purchase. I did find used copies available on www.alibris.com and here on amazon. If you are at all interested in Michigan history or crime/serial killings, this book would be of interest to you.
I came across The Michigan Murders at a garage sale while we were up north. I was drawn to it for several reasons. One, I am a big fan of mysteries and shows like CSI and NCIS. Also, I was fascinated by the fact that I had never heard of this series of killings before, despite the fact that they happened a mere 35 miles from where I lived. (And still live!) Of course, I was only a small child at the time of the murders, so would not have had knowledge of them. I wonder now if my parents followed the story, if my older sisters were worried about their safety at that time.
The Michigan Murders were a series of killings that took place in the Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti area. Seven young women were killed between July of 1967 and July of 1969. (Another young girl was also killed during this time in Monterey, California and evidence shows that she was very likely the victim of the same killer.) I found it very interesting that the author, Edward Keyes, chose to change most of the names of the principle players in the story – including all the victims and the killer. Considering their names would have been public knowledge, I’m not really sure why he chose to change them all. In the forward to the book he claims it was to protect witnesses who were inadvertently drawn into the killings and also the families of the victims who had their own lives to lead. Considering the book came out six years after the trial and conviction of the murderer, I found the author’s attempt to be a thoughtful one, one that would be extremely rare in the day and age in which we currently live.
Edward Keyes was a newspaper reporter and columnist and also co-authored several books. He spent three years investigating and trying to re-create the series of events that took place during the time of the murders. The dust jacket of the book says, “Seven frightful slayings…the police without a clue…the unbearably gripping true story of The Michigan Murders.” I can attest to the fact that the story truly IS gripping, even some 45 years later. I found myself, in many instances, nearly unable to put the book down.
Keyes does a masterful job of creating a narrative, setting the scenes for the murders, establishing the “characters” in this drama that unfolded so many years ago. Looking back over the span of time, I was fascinated with the differences in police procedures, investigative techniques, and of course the lack of scientific procedures (such as DNA) at the time. Although Keyes describes the various crime scenes and details of the murders and victims, none of it was overly graphic or gruesome. There is some bad language throughout, as would be typical of the vocabulary of law enforcement or others during the volatile 60’s. Even though the murders took place 45 years ago, it was still a bit unsettling to read about bodies being found along roads on which I have driven in the not-so-distant past!
Not only was it interesting to consider the differences of police and scientific procedures of the time, it was also interesting to ponder the cultural differences of the 60’s. The drug sub-culture was just taking a firm hold, it was the age of “free love” and women, it seems, didn’t worry at all about their safety. There were always students hitch-hiking back and forth between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Though there was plenty of petty crime in these college towns, violent crimes were rare and the murder of the first girl was one of the worst things the police in Ypsilanti had ever seen.
For the most part, the book speeds right along from the first page, although there are a few areas where it did get a bit bogged down. Keyes inserts the details of the young woman who was killed in Monterey, CA and for some reason that part was a bit slow. Also, the end is taken up by the arrest of the suspect, the legal wrangling of the DA and the defense attorneys, and the trial. Some of that was a bit dry and some of the scientific evidence over my head. I sort of sped through some of it the first time (anxious to get to the verdict!) and then went back and read over it more thoroughly.
I was taken aback to find at the end that the suspected murderer – John Norman Collins, (referred to as James Armstrong in the book) – was only convicted of one murder, the last one. Although he was suspected in all the other murders, including the one in Monterey, there was never enough evidence to try him for the others. Many years later another man would be convicted of one of the murders that didn’t fit the MO of the others. California tried to extradite Collins for the murder in Monterey, but the governor denied the request.
I feel bad that six families never got true closure for the loss of their loved ones. I can’t help but wonder, if it were possible to go over all the evidence today, with all the latest scientific advancements, would it show irrevocably that John Norman Collins was the killer? Perhaps I have watched far too much CSI, but after reading The Michigan Murders I believe it would.
If you are interested in learning more about The Michigan Murders, you can read about it here on Wikipedia. Also, I found an article about John Norman Collins and the murders on a web site called murderpedia. (Some of that information is from Wikipedia.) Who knew such a site even existed!
If you are at all interested in crime drama, I believe you would find The Michigan Murders quite a fascinating read. I know I did!