Nicola Stow’s new anthology-style work of true crime, The Real-Life Murder Clubs: Citizens Solving True Crimes (Ad Lib Publishers 2022) is one of the first fascinating looks into some lesser-known citizen sleuths and the networks they use to solve cold cases and identify unknown murder victims. The Real-Life Murder Clubs is a timely and insightful look into what citizen sleuthing actually looks like, and what it takes to solve a crime.
The Real-Life Murder Clubs plays on the title of Richard Osman’s novel The Thursday Murder Club (2021) in which four friends meet every Thursday night to discuss unsolved crimes. Stow suggests that it’s time to take an in-depth look at those real people who live in their own murder club every day of the year. The Real-Life Murder Clubs is episodic, and each chapter deals with a different citizen sleuth and their successful ‘solves’ as they pursue justice for murdered victims and their families. Although citizen sleuthing has recently become enormously popular with Michelle McNamara’s I’ll be Gone in the Dark (2018) and later Billy Jensen’s Chase Darkness With Me (2019), Stow’s book reveals that people have been trying to solve crimes this way for many years, and they’ve been succeeding. Each chapter comprises a different investigator and their cold cases, some of which are famous, like the Golden State Killer and Luka Magnotta, but others are lesser known. However, they are not, as Stow reminds us, any less important to those people who have investigated and solved them, reuniting victims with their families.
I felt that this book was an incredibly worthwhile read; not only was it well-written and thoughtful, but it provided a kind of access into the world of citizen sleuthing that is unprecedented. Stow’s wide-ranging knowledge and careful description of the various online databases now available to the public in order to help identify missing and murdered victims was eye opening and heartening to read about. She includes a very helpful glossary of terms in the beginning of her book, with definitions to help the reader gain a foothold, and at the end of the text she includes a list of helpful resources, which gathers together all of the databases referenced throughout and their specific contents. Stow clearly hopes her book will be a helpful tool in understanding the processes behind citizen sleuthing.
With that in mind, I did worry that this book might incorrectly encourage others to recklessly embark on a citizen sleuthing mission of their own, misunderstanding the stakes involved. Fortunately, Stow is deeply aware of the ethics involved in these kinds of investigative project. Not only does she warn against sleuthing casually or for the wrong reasons, but she includes sage advice from the sleuths she interviews who have been successfully solving cases for decades. This aspect of the book was hugely important to me. Furthermore, Stow includes an entire chapter about what can go wrong when citizen sleuths behave unethically or make crucial mistakes, using important examples like the Boston Marathon Bombings and the Elisa Lam case.
Although Stow identifies her book as a helpful tool for understanding and exploring citizen sleuthing, her writing and her interviewees are incredibly human. Stow interviews Todd Matthews, who has been solving cold cases and identifying murder victims since the end of the 20th century. The cases these citizen sleuths help to solve, and the ways they are able to do it, are astounding. The text rightly reminds us of the profound and life-changing effect these people can have on the lives of families who have been searching for answers. Often, many of the sleuths Stow interviews have either been victims of crimes, almost-victims, or have lost family to senseless violence. Each of them has an important and empathetic stake in helping other families to find closure, if not justice.
There are also, as I mentioned, some famous cases included here. Stow interviews Paul Haynes, Michelle McNamara’s lead researcher, about the Golden State Killer case and citizen sleuthing. He is someone we have not heard from a lot before, so his perspective was interesting. There is also two chapters devoted to Luka Magnotta and the international efforts people made to find him online. Admittedly, I skipped these chapters because I can’t stand to read about that case, but I’ve no doubt that they are incredibly informative.
Overall, I think The Real-Life Murder Clubs is an unmissable book for any true crime fan, and I felt that I learned a lot about the truth behind citizen sleuthing in Stow’s writing.
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 and the co-creator of True Crime Index. 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.