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Publisher's Summary

Using unprecedented, dramatically compelling sleuthing techniques, legendary statistician and baseball writer Bill James applies his analytical acumen to crack an unsolved century-old mystery surrounding one of the deadliest serial killers in American history.

Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Jewelry and valuables were left in plain sight, bodies were piled together, faces covered with cloth. Some of these cases, like the infamous Villasca, Iowa, murders, received national attention. But few people believed the crimes were related. And fewer still would realize that all of these families lived within walking distance to a train station.

When celebrated baseball statistician and true-crime expert Bill James first learned about these horrors, he began to investigate others that might fit the same pattern. Applying the same know-how he brings to his legendary baseball analysis, he empirically determined which crimes were committed by the same person. Then, after sifting through thousands of local newspapers, court transcripts, and public records, he and his daughter, Rachel, made an astonishing discovery: They learned the true identity of this monstrous criminal. In turn they uncovered one of the deadliest serial killers in America.

Riveting and immersive, with writing as sharp as the cold side of an axe, The Man from the Train paints a vivid, psychologically perceptive portrait of America at the dawn of the 20th century, when crime was regarded as a local problem and opportunistic private detectives exploited a dysfunctional judicial system. James shows how these cultural factors enabled such an unspeakable series of crimes to occur, and his groundbreaking approach to true crime will convince skeptics, amaze aficionados, and change the way we view criminal history.

©2017 Bill James & Rachel McCarthy James. All rights reserved. (P)2017 Simon & Schuster Audio. All rights reserved.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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  • ArtieM
  • 27-09-2017

Extremely interesting

While I had known of the horrific 1912 murders of the Moore family in Vallisca, Iowa, I assumed with certainty it was an isolated case and perpetrated by someone known to the family. To learn of the countless similar family axe murders across the country in the same time period was astounding. Great job by the authors as far as research and telling the tale of this twisted psychopathic serial killer and how he managed to wipe out entire families for many years without ever being identified. Until this book, that is. While much of this story is extremely disturbing, it is also very historically educational. I learned so much about the justice system of the US in that era, or unjust system in many cases. For anyone who enjoys unsolved crime mysteries, this is a great story.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • Amy L Bruce
  • 04-10-2017

Wow!

This was a very well thought out book about a series of murders I've never heard about. Although the layout is at times rather disorganized, I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of what life was like in that time period - how news papers and literacy were linked, the way policing worked, etc.

Assuming their research is solid and they didn't cherry pick facts to fit their narrative (I'm too lazy to do the research myself), I think their conclusion is pretty solid. And I got epic goosebumps when I listened to the last tidbit about where the murderer probably ended up.

I need to listen again and take notes and make diagrams to try to make sense of it all. Wow!

10 of 11 people found this review helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
  • John Brenner
  • 28-02-2018

where's the editor?

Like an overly researched term paper, lacks organization, depth and clarity . offers no knew insights but provides all the grisly details.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Heather L.
  • 22-02-2018

Repetitive and Frustrating

I enjoy true crime and initially I really enjoyed this book but it's just one chapter after another of axe murder without resolution. There are some really interesting anecdotes that break it up, but it's the same thing over and over again. Don't misunderstand, I'm not squeamish about gore and in fact I'd argue the author is actually a bit prudish in discussing the both the murders and the sexual assaults. I just found myself about halfway through thinking "ok, I got it. Is there no way we can move this along?" It's also a very conversational tone. There are a lot of author asides and "We'll tell you about that in the next chapter. " At first I thought this was charming. But by 30 chapters in ( and 15 more to go) I was frustrated. Overall it was like a college paper where an aspiring writer did a ton of research, failed to reach any satisfying conclusion, then got the narrator from the Dukes of Hazard to read their paper aloud. By the end it was a slog just to finish it.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • chicagogirl89
  • 10-10-2017

Interesting Story Mangled by the Author

I was intrigued by the premise of this book having seen a documentary on the tragic murders in Vallisca, Iowa that occurred in 1912. This really could have been an interesting story. However, the author's smug, ham-handed handling left me more irritated than enlightened.

The author is simply not a good writer. His attempts at humor come off as snarky at best and horribly insensitive at worst. Yes, the crimes discussed in the book occurred a very, very long time ago, but the victims were still human beings. Turning their deaths into bad puns that appear to have been leftover from a failed Vaudville act is just in poor taste.

What I found most irritating though, was the author's frequent use of the breaking the the fourth wall trope. Directly addressing the reader/listener without flatlining the story is difficult. Since he just isn't clever enough to pull it off, he comes off as condesceding and snarky. It's like having to listen to an unfunny, creepy, bachelor uncle on Thanksgiving who doesn't realize his jokes stink.

Since so much of the book consists of...I will tell you this- show you that, this is why everyone else missed... the author appears to thinks he's the smartest guy in the room but his conclusions are quite a stretch and his solution to the crimes falls flat.

I agree with another reviewer that the author's handling of the racial issues of the time (and ours) also fails.

11 of 14 people found this review helpful

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  • 6catz
  • 25-09-2017

As good as true crime gets

Fascinating to have a sports statistician tackle this 100 year old mystery - actually dozens of mysteries that occurred in a time span around the beginning of the 20th century. The James team offers a pretty convincing case that this spate of mass murders can be tied together, and backs it up with numbers that are tough to argue with.
A great read, creepy as hell and hard to put down.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • Buretto
  • 23-09-2017

Thoroughly engrossing, with some caveats

First of all, I was completely captivated by the story. I eagerly listened, I anticipated listening, I listened at night in bed, and I re-listened what I had missed after falling asleep. So I definitely have to give this book a positive review. However, that doesn't mean there aren't a few shortcomings.

Typical of many books like this, is the review of being "well-researched". I suspect it was (for all I know), but it was oddly rather refreshing to hear how many times the authors said that they just don't know, or couldn't find information. It would be easy to claim laziness, but I just think that so much time had past, and rural records being so scant to begin with, it was always going to be a difficulty. They addressed it head-on, to their credit.

They very effectively (perhaps manipulatively, considering your perspective) present the most compelling crimes to assign to the man from the train, followed by those less apparently connected, and various seeming outliers. They create a profile of the killer and skilfully build up a case against him.

That being said, some of the conclusions edge to the sketchy. For example, most of the crimes were done with an axe, but when one killing used a different implement, the rationalization is that surely the killer, lacking an axe, would have used anything available in the madness of the moment. Any baseball fan whose ever heard a sabermetrician try to justify dWAR (defensive Wins Against Replacement), an attempt to statistically rank defensive baseball players' skills, you'll have the same rational skepticism (not the irrational skepticism the authors seem to hate). But yet again, the authors freely acknowledge that some conclusions are less convincing than others, and don't demand they all be accepted.

And it has to be said that the attempts at folksy humor get a bit tiring. In particular, the puns on names of victims, suspects and witnesses are unnecessary. (At one point, discussing the massacre of a family named Pfanschmidt, the phrase "the Schmitt hit the fan" is used.)

I waited for this from the moment it was introduced until it was available to be downloaded. And I was thoroughly intrigued, even with the minor annoyances. It was well worth the purchase.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

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  • R. Maher
  • 01-05-2018

Enjoy being mansplained to? You'll love this book!

What disappointed you about The Man from the Train?

This struck me as a book that was rushed out to take advantage of the current true-crime boom without anyone making an effort at organization, brevity or coherence. It could have been half as long and twice as interesting had it been written by almost any of the other journalists working in the genre today.

The author's asides and fourth-wall breaking were tedious and gave the book an unprofessional "ranty" tone.

The author puts forward lots of ideas without much evidence and expects the reader/listener to agree. He even adds asides to tell you you must agree: "Right?! right?!" he whines after each long-winded explanation of his suspect's MO.

Has The Man from the Train turned you off from other books in this genre?

No. I love true crime. This book was just uniquely bad.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • B Rose
  • 19-12-2017

Poorly written.

This would be a very interesting story if the author had done a better job writing it. I’m very disappointed in this book. The audio is also too low and hard to hear.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Amber Sutherland
  • 29-10-2017

Overrated

Interesting subject matter. Written like the way a junior high student might tell a story. There is a lot of jumping around and pauses for unnecessary personal thoughts by the author. I was very disappointed overall.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • mrs_v
  • 13-10-2017

Fascinating unknown story.

Really interesting, frightening and atmospheric book about a series of axe familcides across North America at the beginning of the 20th century. Well researched and perfectly captures rural, small town life in the US at that time. Very frustrating at times, partly down to lack of available information and the attitude of law enforcement at the time. I also think there is too much repetition, I get it for linking the crimes, but certainly phrases or information was unnecessarily repeated again and again. However this was a fascinating story and I couldn't stop listening.