Right from the beginning, “Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York” by Elon Green reads like the hardboiled true crime book that it is.
"John Doe" is the opening chapter's title, and on its first page readers are already treated to the stranger-than-fiction language of real people finding themselves in the middle of a horror show they never signed up for. A maintenance worker, trained years earlier as an emergency medical technician, discovered eight very heavy bags in a green barrel at a rest area in Lancaster County, Penn., on May 5, 1991. When he finally managed to open one of them, he couldn't quite tell what it was: "It looked like a loaf of bread," he said. "But then I saw freckles."
The bagged limbs turned out to be a man named Peter Stickney Anderson, a semi-closeted gay man, the first of the known victims — all gay men, all of whom were in or around a small circle of gay bars in Manhattan — who would, within the next few years, become linked due to the disposal techniques carried out by their killer.
“Last Call” is journalist Elon Green's first book, but he is not new to the genre of true crime, nor is he a stranger to the problems that lie within it, most notably the genre's enduring, pernicious whiteness, and how it has trained us to believe that white women are most often the victims of murder (this is not true; the most commonly murdered demographic are men, by other men). The genre has also trained us into believing that serial killers are masterminds, evil geniuses, rather than opportunists who get lucky — or that they treat murder like some kind of art (a la Hannibal). In other words, the killers often become the focus, the object of fascination.
This is not true in “Last Call,” which puts the victims first, and which, when it does reveal the discovery of the killer, doesn't attempt to make him seem like an anti-hero. But it's the victims that interested Green when he came upon the case by accident. "Once I got past the murders and the investigations," he writes in the epilogue, "and my own disbelief that it has all been forgotten — a string of killings in New York City didn't merit so much as a Wikipedia entry? — I became obsessed with the lives of the victims. I became obsessed with the lives they wanted but couldn't have. Here was a generation of men, more or less, for whom it was difficult to be visibly gay. To be visibly whole."
The victims of the man dubbed the "Last Call Killer" were all gay men, and Green tries to shine a light onto their complicated lives, the messiness of who they were, and an era of queer life in New York City as well. Another trope of the true crime genre is the flattening of victims, the way they're made to seem like the perfect innocents, as if only the virtuous (a nebulous concept) deserve to live on unmurdered. Green refuses to make his victims simple. Indeed, to do so would be to play into the language used against them — as witnessed in one of the most striking moments in the book, when the killer is at a trial completely unrelated to the murders. He was charged with assault and unlawful imprisonment after he had, in 1988, drugged and tied up a man he met at a bar and invited home.
The man, Sandy Harrow (a pseudonym) was deeply traumatized by the encounter, during which he woke up in the middle of the night, tied up, screaming, only to have a hypodermic needle inserted into his hand, putting him to sleep again. After arriving home, Harrow reported the crime, and the killer was charged — although at the 1990 trial, the killer's lawyer suggested that his client was really there because he'd refused to sleep with Harrow. The story the killer told on the stand was that Harrow had tried to get him to participate in sexual acts he wasn't into, and the trial became a kind of "he said, he said." There's a stink to the judge's decision that's reminiscent of the attitude police had when one of Jeffrey Dahmer's victims, drugged, naked, and bleeding, escaped into the street only to be politely returned to Dahmer's clutches by police officers who chalked up the incident as a "domestic squabble between homosexuals" (the victim, Konerak Sinthasomphone, was 14; Dahmer was 31).
I was expecting Green to be more a part of the narrative of “Last Call,” perhaps because I've gotten used to a new breed of crime books in which the reporters interrogate their place within the narrative alongside the telling of it. There is, occasionally, an appreciated bit of snark in the narration that winks at the incompetence of our various justice systems: One such moment is when, after quoting one of victim Peter Anderson's fraternity brothers as saying, "Once I got into college, I just slacked off," Green adds that he was "eventually recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency." But mostly Green's narration is somewhat detached, letting the victims, their families, witnesses, and activists working to protect the queer community in the late 1980s and early '90s tell the story in their own voices, through their own eyes.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic, and founder/host of the podcast The Other Stories. Her debut novel is All My Mother's Lovers.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.