Carolyn’s CBR Review #35- A Death in Belmont

Imagine how strange and frightening it would be to see a picture of yourself, not quite a year old, with your mother and two men, one of whom is a confessed serial killer. This is what happened to Sebastian Junger, and only a small part of what he recounts in A Death in Belmont. A Death in Belmont” is about the brutal rape-murder of an elderly woman named Bessie Goldberg just blocks from his childhood home in an affluent suburb of Boston. A black man named Roy Smith, who happened to be working in the Goldberg home that day, was quickly convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. But the killer may well have been someone far more intriguing. The time was the early 1960′s, when the Boston area was traumatized by a series of rape-murders believed to be perpetrated by a single predator who came to be known as the Boston Strangler. The man who eventually confessed to being the Boston Strangler worked on a construction job in the Junger home. Indeed, he was working there on the day of the Goldberg murder. There is even a chilling photograph, included in the book, of a smiling Albert DeSalvo standing over the baby Sebastian and his doting mother. Although DeSalvo did not confess to the Goldberg murder, Junger explores the likelihood that the man in the photograph killed Bessie Goldberg on the day he was working in Junger’s home. To raise the stakes even further, Junger tells us, in his mother’s words, about the day, before the Goldberg murder, when DeSalvo was alone with his mother in the Junger home:

“I heard him come in, and two or three minutes later I heard him call me. So I opened the door to the cellar, and I saw him down there at the foot of the stairs and he was looking at me. And he was looking in a way that is almost indescribable. He had this intense look in his eyes, a strange kind of burning in his eyes, as if he was almost trying to hypnotize me. As if by sheer force of will he could draw me down into that basement.”

Junger then adds his own words:

“Clearly he wanted to get her down into the basement, and clearly if she did that things could go very wrong. My mother told him that she was busy, and then she closed the basement door and shot the bolt.”

These descriptions were, of course, made with the benefit of hindsight, years after DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston Strangler. At the time of her encounter with the workman, Junger’s mother, though concerned, told no one — neither her husband nor the construction boss — about DeSalvo. “Did she really want to get a man fired for the look in his eyes?” Junger asks rhetorically.

“A Death in Belmont,” though nonfiction, reads like a novel. Its narrative line is crisp. Junger takes us through the trial and conviction of Roy Smith, the series of stranglings in and around Boston, and the arrest and confession of Albert DeSalvo. However, I was a little frustrated in the end; although Junger hinted at times that he thought Ray Smith was innocent and DeSalvo guilty, he later lays out all of the reasons why Smith might have done it and why DeSalvo did not. Although he repeatedly cautions the readers that the truth is messy, I wished he could have cleaned it up a little more.

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