True Crime writer Casey Sherman’s latest book, Helltown: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer on Cape Cod (Sourcebooks, 2022), is a fascinating and unflinching look at the crimes of Tony Costa and the two great American writers who were inspired by him.
Tony Costa’s crimes have been given less attention in the true crime genre than other infamous serial murderers, but as Sherman’s book demonstrates, Costa’s crimes are garnering more and more attention from writers in recent years. Following Liza Rodman’s true crime-memoir The Babysitter: My Summers with a Serial Killer (co-authored with Jennifer Jordan, 2021), which details Costa’s crimes and Rodman’s experiences with Costa himself as a child, Sherman’s book is a narrative account of Costa’s life, the murders he committed, and the social and political moment surrounding his offenses and eventual capture. Beginning in the late 1960s, during a time of enormous political upheaval due to the Vietnam War, Sherman’s book recounts Costa’s life in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Although Costa at first appears to be simply a recognizable member of the hippie scene in Ptown as a drug dealer and a sometimes-informant for the local police, when women begin to disappear without explanation, Costa begins to look more and more like the odd man out to locals and law enforcement alike. Eventually, when the bodies of four women are discovered in an isolated stretch of woods, Costa becomes the prime suspect in a series of brutal killings, the details of which are almost too gruesome to believe.
Meanwhile, Sherman’s narrative moves away from Costa and his crimes to recount the literary and social details of the lives of famous American novelists Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Norman Mailer. Rivals who were known to each other in the small world of American letters, Vonnegut and Mailer both became interested in the Costa case as writers and intellectuals of the period. Sherman’s book delves into the literary history surrounding the lives of Mailer, Vonnegut, and their interest in Costa, adding a highly original and interesting twist to this work of narrative true crime.
Sherman chooses to recount the narrative of Costa and the US in the 1960s and 70s using many of the hallmarks of fiction writing. Sherman adapts dialogue, plot, and characters around a very real case, making this text read more like a novel than like a work of nonfiction. This style is very effective, and allows for the multiple threads of the story to interconnect at a pace that makes sense for the whole of the book. While the dialogue at times reads as more stilted than any actual speech might be, Sherman’s writing has the sharp, sparse quality of good and clear narrative.
Helltown’s narrative structure, however, does not detract from the extensive research involved in writing a text like this one. The text is obviously grounded in the news media, trial transcripts, and autopsy reports from the period, and Sherman leaves no stone unturned in his examination of the Costa case. Sherman pulls no punches in recounting Costa’s brutal crimes, fully unpacking just how tragic and heinous the murders were and underscoring the victims’ family’s immense loss.
Overall, Helltown is a must-read true crime text for those interested in literary history and serial killer cases from this pivotal period in American history.
Please add Helltown to your Goodreads shelf.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.