Why I Wrote The Boston Stranglers

Susan KellyBy

Susan Kelly

Well, as the man said when they asked him why he climbed Mount Everest: “Because it was there.”

That answer might require some back story. Longer ago than I want to recall—oh, okay, it was 1981—I was embarking on my third attempt to write a mystery novel. (The less said about the first two attempts, the better, I assure you.) I wanted to know about investigative work as it is done by actual police detectives. So I made an appointment to talk to a lieutenant of detectives in the Cambridge Police Department. I remember the day itself well; it was one of those typical Massachusetts November afternoons when the sky looks like a dirty old mattress.

When I got to the station, I had to wait; the lieutenant was interviewing a witness to a crime. So I cooled my heels in the anteroom to the chief’s office. Sitting there with me were two detectives, socializing with the chief’s secretary, very genial white-haired men who introduced themselves to me as “the two Billies.” (Each had the first name of William.) They asked me what I was doing here in the police station. I explained that I was researching police procedure.

They told me that they’d been detectives for thirty years and had some great stories. I assured them that I was very, very eager to hear anything they wanted to tell me.

I added, then, that I was particularly interested in serial killers.

“Like Ted Bundy,” I said.

The two Billies looked at each other with odd little grins. Then one of them asked me, “Who do you think the Boston Strangler was?”

The question was a little startling, because I thought it had been long since settled. “Albert DeSalvo.”

Both Billies laughed.

“Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler like my dog was the Boston Strangler,” one of them said.

Oh, my.

I asked them to tell me about it. And they did.

Well, the upshot of this conversation was that I kept on interviewing people involved, one way or another, in law enforcement: cops, district attorneys, defense lawyers, etc. And always, the subject of The Boston Strangler arose. And inevitably: Not one of these people thought DeSalvo was the guilty party.

It was one of the strangest disconnects I’ve ever experienced: A received truth was being roundly denied by those people in the best position to know the facts of the matter.

Well, anyway, I filed all this away, and went on to write novels, and my novels got published. But the Strangler story always stayed in the back of my mind. And so, in 1992, I decided to do something about it. I did the research, did the interviewing, and wrote the book. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun.

(Maybe it wasn’t work. I love writing. It makes me feel really alive. Nothing involved in the process is tiresome to me.)

And…doing the book accorded me a rare privilege: that of revising a small piece of history. I read every single one of the case files regarding the murders that took place between June 1962 and January 1964, and my position on the case remains the same today. These murders were not serial killings, although a quite reasonable case can be made that the first four victims—older white women—might have been murdered by the same person.

Now I realize that some of you—with absolute justification—will point to the DNA testing done in the summer of 2013 on a blanket found in the apartment of Mary Sullivan, the final Strangler victim. It indicated that DeSalvo’s DNA had been found on the blanket. And I would understand perfectly if you concluded that this proved DeSalvo’s guilt of, at least, the Sullivan murder.

But…there were two samples of DNA found on Sullivan’s body—one in the pubic area–that did not match DeSalvo’s. One of them matched the DNA of the original prime suspect in her murder, who was not DeSalvo. The state declined to test these samples.

I should also add that DeSalvo’s DNA was not found on the blanket during any previous testing. I should further add that there were plenty of other reasons to assume that the prime suspect was guilty, such as the fact that he flunked two lie detector tests.

I believe that DNA is an incredibly useful tool in crime investigation. It is unique to an individual, and therefore irrefutable as a means of identification. If you find the DNA of a suspect in the vagina of a rape/murder victim, and under her fingernails from shreds of his skin that accumulated there as she tried to fight off her assailant, and on her face or anywhere else that his saliva or sweat or mucus or semen may have dripped…well, that’s very inculpatory. But the presence of DNA at a crime scene does not necessarily indicate guilt, particularly if it’s not on the victim. Let me tell you why.

We drop our DNA, in a variety of ways, everywhere we go. You’ve just returned from a trip to the grocery store. Your DNA is on anything you touched there, including that head of Romaine you returned to the produce bin because it didn’t look quite fresh enough. It’s on that bottle of ketchup you put back on the shelf because you just remembered you have an unopened bottle of ketchup in the cupboard at home. It’s on the money or credit card you handed the cashier at the check-out counter. And your DNA is all over the cart you used.

In the course of the day, did you go to your dentist? Your doctor? Your lawyer? Your DNA is all over their waiting rooms, consultation rooms, or examination rooms. If you went to the public library, you left it in their stacks.

Okay. Suppose you visited a friend and had coffee or a drink with him or her. Your DNA would be on the cup or glass you used, on the chair or sofa where you sat, in the bathroom if you used the sink, toilet, tub, or shower…it would be on anything you touched. And so would your fingerprints, for that matter.

Now suppose—horrific thought—your friend is murdered shortly after you leave his or her house or apartment. Your DNA is all over the place. It may also be on your friend’s body, if you hugged or kissed or shook hands. Suppose you and your friend engaged in some form of sexual activity. You have left your DNA all over your partner’s body, and on the bed, if you used the bed. Does that mean you’re the murderer? Of course it doesn’t. Sure, you might be. But more is required to prove your guilt. And that is exactly as it should be.

Well, I am not going to try your patience with a long list of reasons why Albert DeSalvo probably didn’t kill Mary Sullivan, nor anyone else. If you like, you can read the book (The Boston Stranglers). Or the article I wrote and posted on my Amazon author page (amzn.to./18wHstx; just type that address into your browser exactly as I’ve written it). Get back to me with any questions.

The Strangler case is fascinating for a lot of reasons. It became a social and cultural phenomenon, generated in large part by press hysteria. Boston had more newspapers then than it does now, and they were all competing for the same audience. (Sample headline from the time: PHANTOM FIEND STRIKES AGAIN.) The case also became a political football, and an opportunity for various people to make names for themselves. It was the perfect venue for showboaters. And, as the late Robert B. Parker once observed, for psychics and dancing chickens as well. In all this, the victims became…just bodies. They deserved better than that.

I am not an apologist for Albert DeSalvo. He wasn’t a good guy; he was a serial sex offender. But he wasn’t a serial killer.

So here’s the thing: We are all innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.



By Zachary Klein

I’m an outspoken pacifist. I cover my eyes while watching most violence I see on television or in the movies. And I continue to believe in humanity, despite the gruesome reality that surrounds us.

I also earn my living writing about murder, betrayal, greed, and as much of the dark underside in our society as I can possibly perceive and understand.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Nothing. Writing is an art and I believe that every type of art gives all of us the space to experience the truly ugly strands of human nature without having to act them out. I’ll go even farther. It doesn’t have to be art. I believe the same about pornography, politically incorrect movies, and any “make believes.” I feel exactly the same about video games—though I haven’t played one since Tetris.

I know the argument that viewing/reading violence, sex, and the politically incorrect, actually encourages people to act out their inner uglies. I just don’t believe it. Worse, arguments like those have tightened control on what we can see, listen to, write and produce. We’ve lost a serious amount of creative space, not added. In fact, I think that throughout history, restriction and censorship has done more damage than what it tries to condemn.

A few nights ago Sue and I were flipping through mainstream channels, spotted the film Airplane, and stopped to watch—though we’d seen it a boatload of times. The movie had been released in 1980 and, at the same moment, we turned to each other and agreed that it would be impossible to make that movie now. “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” pilot Peter Graves asks a little boy. (Not allowed to crack wise about pederasty these days.) A stewardess blows a rubber doll. (Where besides a fetish flick can you watch that?) An airport manager sniffs glue. And much, much more that defies our current cultural zeitgeist. Nothing in the movie was sacred. Oh, Airplane was rated PG.

The politically incorrect parts were making fun of and lambasting racism, sexism, drug use etc, rather than promoting it. Know what? Our kids did not grow up traumatized from sexual innuendo. (Who do you know that became a racist after watching Blazing Saddles?) No matter how you slice it, there’s a loss here.

I’ll grant my belief that every type “make believe” as a space to allow the worst of ourselves to be harmlessly encountered is difficult to conceive. Especially since we live in a world with an amazing amount of violence and perversity that has always, and continues, to exist. It’s tough to see how crime writing has reduced crime when crime is rampant. That writing about murder has reduced killing. But I believe it’s tough to see because the gift of imaginary freedom has always been buried under reality. And reality isn’t particularly pretty.

We’ve been socialized to think entertainment is simply that. For fun. That art is something to read, watch, and sometimes feel. And it’s that socialization which has reduced the power of “make believe” and I believe added to real life’s crushing brutality.

So before we can get an honest answer to my proposition, we actually need to eradicate the social/political/poverty and race issues that cause the actual violence in which we live. Only please don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Even if we were magically able to staunch the blood flow, there will always be an underside in everyone and that’s not going anywhere. Except into imagination which I as a reader and writer hold most dear. For the “make believe” we read in crime fiction or see in violent movies or hear in some dark music is a space that allows us to visit, explore, and treat the worst parts of ourselves—harmlessly, and then come back to our normal lives and sit down at the dinner table.

I’m not saying I write detective fiction simply for the good of humanity. In past columns I’ve mentioned the wonderful similarities I see (and sometimes get to enjoy) between playing jazz and writing detective fiction. (To be honest, probably more traditional jazz than total free-form.) The excitement of taking a paradigm and pushing at its boundaries. The novelist’s pleasure of bringing their audience into unknown places and unexpectedly intense situations.

But more than the personal enjoyment, I believe that, without proof, our work as crime writers contribute to the hope of a better, less violent, more tolerant world. And whether or not we collectively, cognitively, acknowledge it, all the multiple forms I mentioned above give promise to that hope.

We need imaginary violence. We need a place for kinkiness, we need a space in which we can safely (for ourselves and others) try out anything we want to be—without actually being it and without fear of reprisal.

We need more Breaking Bads, Sopranos, Deadwoods, Big Sleeps, Red Harvests, and especially more movies like Airplane.

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus ~ Mark Twain

Why We Write about Crime

By Susan Kelly

Susan KellyI’m going to take a bold leap here, and speak for Zach as well as myself, and a host of hard-working people who pour their guts into their writing. Somehow, I don’t think Zach and the others will mind. But if I’ve presumed too much, I ask everyone’s pardon.

So…why do we write about crime? Well, there are two practical considerations. Publishers, traditionally, have always liked books that can be labeled: mystery, science fiction, romance, fantasy, historical, or western. The categories can be sub-divided; under the rubric of “mystery” you will find novels in which the detective protagonist is a cop, a private eye, a forensics expert, or an amateur. There are novels featuring major historical figures–Ben Franklin and Abe Lincoln come to mind-as the chief investigator. Hard-boiled. Soft-boiled. The descriptor is a marketing tool, and is, for booksellers as well as writers, publishers, and readers, a useful one.

The second pragmatic reason for writing about crime-particularly in novel form-is that the writer starts out knowing what he or she has to accomplish. The basic storyline exists before the writer has set pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. Someone has to commit a crime, and someone else has to solve it, or attempt to solve it. It’s a huge relief knowing what you have to do. The beginning and ending are more or less ordained, freeing you to concentrate on character, dialogue, setting, and theme.

But the larger question remains: Why do people write about crime? And, for that matter, why do people like to read about it? As individuals we know that our lives will, sometimes, be very hard. We’ll lose our loved ones, sometimes before their time, sometimes in terrible ways. As a group, we understand that the world could end tomorrow if some kook decides to start a nuclear war. We live with the intellectual and visceral awareness of loss: personal and communal, past, present, and future. So why should we add to those fears and sorrows by reading fiction and non-fiction about the darkest side of human nature? What’s fun or relaxing or entertaining or instructive about a narrative involving a homicidal child rapist? Or a fanatic impelled by ideology and inner demons to commit genocide? Or someone who arranges to have his or her spouse killed in order to collect on an insurance policy? Or a serial killer?

Simple answer: Because it’s cosmic. It’s more cosmic than anything, even sex. It’s about life cut short by a death that was a violation of the natural order. Murder affronts us all. We witness injustice; we look for someone to redress the injustice. Jews would call this tikkun olam, to heal or repair the world. Or restore the balance of the universe, if you want to look at it in medieval or Renaissance terms.

Speaking of which, I’ve always believed that the true ancestor of the crime novel is the medieval romance itself. All the elements are there. The twenty-first century fictional detective functions exactly as the fourteenth-century fictional knight did. A wrong is committed, evil threatens good, and the knight or detective sets forth to right the wrong, to vanquish the evil. And protect and defend the innocent.

The knight, like the detective, is a flawed human being. But, most importantly, both adhere to a code of honor.       As humans, we have always been obsessed with the need to put things right. The urge cuts across time, culture, nationality, and religion. It has never not been with us, any time, anywhere. The fact that sometimes we succeed in putting things right encourages us to go on trying to do so. The fact that very often we don’t succeed in putting things right may spur our efforts even further.

So what crime writers do, I suppose, is take that urge and make of it a story. Create characters to act it out, and set up a stage for them to do so. Provide a backdrop for the action.

Mostly-although perhaps I should speak only for myself here–we don’t do it nearly as well as we’d like.

But we keep on doing it.

And we hope you’ll keep on reading it.


Susan KellyAnd for what I hope will be a good long time.

I am thrilled to announce that Susan Kelly will be alternating with me on Monday’s “Just sayin'” columns. Her first post will appear on the 18th.

I can’t begin to tell you how much pleasure this gives me. Susan and I go way back to the days when Kate’s Mystery Bookstore in Cambridge, MA, (sadly no longer there) was the place to hang if you loved mysteries. Virtually every New England mystery writer consistently stopped by and, once a year, we all would invade Kate’s and showcase our books together. If you wanted to meet Robert Parker, he’d be there. Bill Tapply? Yep. Jeremiah Healy, a regular. Katherine Hall Page—for sure. Susan Kelly? Always.

When I say “go back,” I mean we became friends. We enjoyed each other’s work and respected each other’s abilities. (Actually, I’ve always been somewhat jealous since her range of writing–detective fiction, interviews, non-fiction–is far greater than my own.) We’d lost track of each other for a long time for a variety of reasons (not the least of which was my disappearance as a writer) but over the past year we’ve reconnected. Those of you who are steady readers of this column will recognize the title Beach Bitch as hers, a guest column she wrote a while ago.

The breadth of Susan’s work is pretty amazing. Her fictional LIZ CONNER SERIES focuses on a crime writer who investigates crimes and writes about them. Her non-fiction work is impeccably researched with a curiosity and demand for truth. Just read THE BOSTON STRANGLERS and you will see what I mean. One look at her website says it all. Well, perhaps not all; Susan writes with style and grace but is too modest to say so.

She’s also damn funny and irreverent and will have you, at times, smiling and laughing. I’m looking forward to a new and better “Just sayin'” column and believe that you’re all gonna love Susan’s work as much as I do.

Besides the pleasure of our collaboration, I have another reason to write every two weeks. Frankly, I want the time to really dig in and research issues I care about. Plus, I also want to get back to my INTERVIEWS WITH THE DEAD series and, to do them well, takes more time than a week gives me.

So, while I might be a bit biased, I think those of you who read her columns and pick up her books will land in the same place as I am. Lucky to have her on board.


and this time a few dollars short, which I spent on books. Saturday was Independent Bookstore Day. Yes I know that three out of my four books live in the e-Book world; only one can (hopefully) be found in an indie bookshop near you. But ya gotta give it up for those stores that survived and often thrived despite the onslaught of mega-merchants.

Back in the day, I not only learned how to write, (thank you Susan), it was only after my first book was published, that I also discovered how things worked after a book was released—at least in those years. Publishers had reps who visited, toiled with those who stocked the bookstore shelves, and presented their newly published list.

I was lucky. Truth is, my publisher’s rep cared as much about the bookstore as she did the publisher. She often knew the store’s overall stock as well as its booksellers, even its owner. I know this because she and I became friends and I occasionally accompanied her when she did her rounds. In fact, we became close enough that Susan and I began to get invited to rep parties—not only hers, but those of reps with other publishers.

Learned a real lesson. Basically I discovered that representatives from all different legacy publishing houses not only read their own house’s books, but swapped with other houses’ reps to keep up with what was being published. Also because they simply loved to read.

I’ve been to parties with writers, editors, and some pretty intellectual people, but I’ve never heard better party talk than the book discussions at those rep’s houses. Pretty amazing and lots of fun.

But, like everything else, good things come to an end

Barnes & Noble and Borders began to blow up individual bookstores—including smaller chains—and that made publisher reps another sacrificial group of lambs. Some survived, but not many.

Then came the Internet with Amazon et al. Stores I visited on a regular basis during the 90s simply no longer exist. I find this a painful reality. Not just because there are less brick-and-mortar outlets for authors, but because the whale who swallowed Jonah also gobbled everything else in sight to grow larger and more profitable. Trying to feed upon those who not only loved books, but stuck with scraping by because of that love.

So, given huge chains (including Walmart and Costco) and the Internet, we’re at a place where the independent bookstores that survived often thrived because of their customers’ loyalty. And they are even better than ever. Their clerks are not only friendly and helpful, but have often read many of the books their store carries. You walk into these independent stores and see cards stuck under specific books with a clerk’s comments, recommendations that say, “if you enjoyed this book you might like…” Some shops have entire shelves stocked with books that their workers enjoyed.

And of course, independent bookstores continue to be the places where authors speak, read, answer questions from the general public and, of course, sign their books. It’s certainly a treasure for writers, whose work life by definition is solitary and it’s an economic necessity and a pleasure—perhaps more so for writers than the people who come to hear us. As I’ve said in previous columns, there are a lot of pluses involved with e-Books and online publishing. But sadly there just aren’t as many places to mix as there once were. It’s not really an option to hang out at Amazon, Kobo, ITunes or any other internet book selling establishment and chat with readers.

I started off my Patriot’s Day column apologizing to Brookline Booksmith. They had invited me to speak at the store shortly after TIES THAT BLIND was newly published and I had planned to put up pictures of the event for my next column. But sometimes columns, like novels, begin to tell you what to write rather than the other way around. And with the running of the Boston Marathon coinciding with the verdict of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I felt I had to write about the death penalty instead.

But what better time to be back to the Booksmith than the column that extols indie bookstores? I have a lot of people and places to thank for my writing career and, not the least of which, are the wonderful people at Brookline Booksmith. You hung in there with me for close to two decades. Thank you.

In tribute, here is a video link that presents a collage of their long and storied history, replete with famous and not so famous authors. (If you watch it all the way through you will catch a glimpse of a not famous, but younger and a much better looking me.)