- - Thursday, October 15, 2020

Mark Bowden is perhaps best known for his book “Black Hawk Down” and his other books about the American military, such as “Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam,” and “Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam.” But in his latest book, “The Case of the Vanishing Blonde and Other True Crime Stories,” he returns to his roots as a crime reporter.      

Mr. Bowden, who received a lifetime achievement award from the International Thriller Writers organization, offers six true crime stories he had written previously for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Vanity Fair and Air Mail. The stories range from a case of a campus rape at the University of Pennsylvania in 1983, to three stories involving cold cases investigated by a Long Island private detective named Ken Brennan, as well as a fascinating case of a Los Angeles Police Department investigation into a 26-year-old murder that leads to one of their own.

“Newspaper reporting hones an appetite for crime,” Mr. Bowden writes in the introduction to the book. “When I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer, back in its heyday, when it had reporters based all over the region, nation, and the world, we reporters competed vigorously for the paper’s limited news hole. You learned fast that a good crime yarn was a shortcut to page one.”

Mr. Bowden notes that crime has been part of his work ever since. Three of his books, “Doctor Dealer,” Finders Keepers,” and the “Last Stone” (which I reviewed here), are about crime, and he wrote that “The Finish” and “Killing Pablo,” his books about the hunt for bin Laden and Pablo Escobar, are arguably about crime as well.  

“For a writer like me, audio and video recordings are like a gift from God,” Mr. Bowden writes. “When I started as a newspaper reporter in the 1970s, it was rare to have a photo or recording of anything I wrote about. Today it is rare not to have such material. In fact, there is often so much of it that it poses new challenges.”

I reached out to Mark Bowden and I asked him why out of all the many stories he has written for newspapers and magazine, he chose these particular stories for the book.  

“I chose these stories because they are my favorites from the long-form crime stories I have written over the years,” Mr. Bowden told me. “I think they are because most — although not all — deal with issues that transcend the immediate drama. The fraternity rape story deals with changing attitudes toward sexual violence, the sexual predator story with entrapment, the Stephanie Lazarus story the tendency of institutions to protect their own, the Euhommie Bond story with racial divisions and attitudes. 

“I think the Ken Brennan stories are the most memorable, because they showcase his skill as an investigator, and each unravels a mystery that stumped local police. Ken contacted me out of the blue, and told me, in brief, the story that became ‘The Case of the Vanishing Blonde.’ I loved him as a character, and we have stayed friends. Some years later, over lunch, he told me the story of ‘The Body in Room 348,’ and again, years later, over lunch in Florida, he told me the ‘Euhommie Bond’ story.

“Ken is like any writer’s gift from the heavens.”

 Mr. Bowden said that as a cub reporter at The Baltimore News American and later as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, some of the first stories he ever wrote were about crime.

“Crime stories are like bread and butter for newspapers. I can remember, in my first weeks as a reporter in Baltimore, cruising the empty city streets through the night with a retired cop (now employed by the newspaper), listening to the police radio, and racing to the scene of trouble. He kept a handgun in his glove compartment in case we arrived before the cops.”

I asked Mr. Bowden why crime stories are so popular.

 “Crime is when some basic rule or taboo in society is broken, and someone is harmed as a result,” Mr. Bowden replied. “It frightens us, and it offends our sense of justice and order. Dissecting exactly what happened, and why, is fascinating. Life is boring when everything runs smoothly; far more interesting when things break down — so long as it breaks down for someone else. Crime stories are also reassuring. We like to see the bad guys get caught and punished.”

“The Case of the Vanishing Blonde and Other True Crime Stories” is well-written, interesting and reads like a crime thriller.

• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.  

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