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A Death in Belmont Hardcover – April 18, 2006

3.2 out of 5 stars 163 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

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.

The quiet suburb of Belmont, Massacuusetts, is in the grip of fear. The Boston Strangler murders have taken place nearby, and now there is another shocking sex crime, right in Belmont. The victim is Bessie Goldberg, a middle-aged woman who had hired a cleaning man to help out around the house on that fall day in 1963. He is a black man named Roy Smith. He did the appointed chores, collected his money and left a receipt on the kitchen table. Neighbors will say that he looked furtive when he walked down the street, that he was in a hurry, that he stopped to buy cigarettes, that he looked over his shoulder. They didn't see a black man in Belmont very often, so, of course, they noticed him. So the story went, and on these slender threads, and his own checkered history, Roy Smith is convicted of the Belmont murder and sent to prison.

On the day of the murder, Albert DeSalvo, an Italian-American handyman, is also in Belmont, working as a carpenter in the Junger home, where the picture is taken. Two years after his work for the Jungers, he confesses in vivid detail to the crimes of which the Boston Strangler is accused, and sent to prison, where he is stabbed to death by an inmate. But he never confesses to the Bessie Goldberg murder. Could he have left the Junger home, committed the murder a few blocks away and calmly returned to finish his day's work? Could Roy Smith really have been the guilty party, even though his sentence was commuted after De Salvo confessed?

In the grand tradition of his bestselling The Perfect Storm, Junger tells a terrific story, lining up all the elements, asking all the pertinent questions, digging into the backgrounds of both men, retelling his mother's very strange encounter with Albert when she is home alone with Sebastian. He then asks the larger questions: Was Roy Smith convicted summarily because he was black? Was Albert De Salvo really the Boston Strangler?

Junger cannot answer all the questions, as no one can. Without DNA, there is no way to be certain of which of the two men might have committed the rape and murder of Bessie Goldberg, or if neither of them is guilty. While it is frustrating not to know for sure, the story is fascinating, reads like a tautly plotted mystery thriller, and Junger's close connection is downright creepy. --Valerie Ryan

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Bessie Goldberg was strangled to death in her home in Belmont, a Boston suburb, in March of 1963—right in the middle of the Boston Strangler's killing spree. Her death has not usually been associated with the other Strangler killings because Roy Smith, a black man who was working in Goldberg's house that day, was convicted of her murder on strong circumstantial evidence. But another man was working in Belmont that day: Albert DeSalvo, who later confessed to being the Boston Strangler, was doing construction work in the home of Junger's parents (the author himself was a baby). Could DeSalvo have slipped away and killed Bessie Goldberg? Junger's taut narrative makes dizzying hairpin turns as he considers all the evidence for, and against, Smith or DeSalvo being Goldberg's killer; he also reviews the more familiar case for and against DeSalvo being the Strangler—for there are serious questions about his confession. As Junger showed in his bestselling The Perfect Storm, he's a hell of a storyteller, and here he intertwines underlying moral quandaries—was racism a factor in Smith's conviction? How to judge when the truth in this case is probably unknowable?—with the tales of two men: Smith, a ne'er-do-well from a racist South who rehabilitated himself before dying in prison; DeSalvo, a sexual predator raised by a violent father who was stabbed to death in prison. This perplexing story gains an extra degree of creepiness from Junger's personal connection to it. First serial to Vanity Fair;19-city author tour. (May 1)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (April 18, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393059804
  • ISBN-13: 978-1127419395
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (163 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #324,392 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By kevnm VINE VOICE on May 31, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Junger has, in the past, intertwined a number of narratives to add complexity and texture to his writing. This structure added to the drama of A Perfect Storm, as the reader moved from the Coast Guard rescue operations to the Weather Service, to the fishing fleet, etc.

Here, though, the multiple narrative threads diluted the work, and felt like padding. The book is the story of a black man caught up in the Boston Strangler investigation. Junger deftly presents evidence which suggests he was innocent. A small amount of additional interest arises from the recounting of the crimes associated with Albert DeSalvo, and even less from the fact that DeSalvo worked briefly at the author's parents' home.

The rest, racism in the South, the economics of Parchman farm prison, Kennedy's assassination, discussions of serial killers and the justice system (which appear to be written for sixth-graders) are strictly padding. They're completely pointless, and still any momentum the narrative might have achieved.

Junger writes well, and this inflated magazine article is not a complete disaster. Admirers of Junger's writing can only hope he finds a story better suited to his considerable talents.
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Format: Hardcover
By all rights, this should have been a five page magazine article instead of a 300+ page book. Although the premise is mildly interesting, most of the book consists of obvious filler. The need for more and more filler means that Junger (and his editors) imposed no self-discipline in his sometimes excrutiating meanderings. For example, it is clear that whoever killed Bessie Goldberg committed murder. To add a couple pages to the book, however, Junger inserts a completely irrelevant description of the legal standards for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter that (by the way) are not even accurate. When you're trying to fill up pages, every random tangent becomes fair game. The telling detail is overshadowed by the extraneous detail, which leaves the reader with the impression that Junger is a sloppy thinker. It's too bad, because he's a generally fabulous writer -- he's not only an excellent stylist, but he usually can put together a tight, cohesive narrative. I'm sure he got a hefty advance on this one, but I can't imagine it is worth the hit to his reputation to turn what could have been a lively magazine article into a book length swamp.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Of the dozens of books I have read and reviewed over the past few years, Sebastian Junger's "A Death in Belmont" is one of the hardest to judge. While it is well-written it is also suspect to an unobjective point of view by the author.

Ostensibly, this is a book about the "Boston strangler", his murder spree in the early 1960s and Junger's brush with Albert DeSalvo, the man who was later identified as the strangler and convicted for the crimes associated with his moniker. Yet DeSalvo becomes almost a supporting character as Junger delves more deeply into the person of Roy Smith, a black man from Mississippi who murdered Junger's Belmont neighbor, Bessie Goldberg in 1963.

Junger is at his best in giving full descriptions of the backgrounds of both DeSalvo and Smith and he's especially informative of how the legal system works (or did work) in Massachusetts. With a flair for unraveling a good story, Junger builds a parallel narrative of both men. He primes the reader with provocative questions, as well. However, as he continues, it is Smith who emerges as the real man of interest. In doing so, Junger steps over the bounds of objectivity and lends himself to side with Smith about the Goldberg murder. It's too bad because had he kept a fairer distance this would have been a first-rate offering.

I can't give a recommendation for this book but I also wouldn't suggest that it not be read. It's not a bad book at all, but it could have been so much better.
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Format: Paperback
Sebastian Junger possesses a chilling photo. It is of himself, barely a toddler, sitting on his young and happy mother's lap. Behind them stand two men, one, an unexceptional looking workman has a hammer jutting out of his pocket. The other, the central figure of the photo, stands with one enormous hand across his mid-riff. The second figure is Albert DeSalvo, convicted Boston Strangler. It is impossible to look at this photo and not feel the horror of not only what happened when 13 Boston area women were murdered, but what could have happened that would have changed the author's life forever. Albert DeSalvo worked as a carpenter in the Junger home. Spent hours in their home alone with Sebastian and his mother. Seeing this photo, it is easy to see how the Boston Strangler case became an obsession with the author. Before the Strangler is apprehended an older woman is murdered in their neighborhood and a black drifter (Roy Smith) is tried and convicted of the crime. So as an adult Junger explores this murder in his neighborhood, researches the man that was convicted and sent to jail for it, as well as the other crimes committed by DeSalvo. His conclusions? Inconclusive. It is possible that Roy Smith was sent to jail for a crime committed by DeSalvo. But Smith's life is so pointless it is hard to feel much empathy for him. He drops out of school in the 8th grade, and begins living a petty life of drinking, occaisonal jobs, and crime. He lived his life in a way that almost begged to be of interest to police. Junger examines DeSalvo's life too, but not in enough new detail to make it interesting either. So by the time Junger publishes this book, DeSalvo is dead, Roy Smith is dead, most people associated with the Strangler case are dead.Read more ›
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