Review of Helltown by Casey Sherman #SDME

Another True Crime Book Review.

Blurb: 1969: The hippie scene is vibrant in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Long-haired teenagers roam the streets, strumming guitars and preaching about peace and love… and Tony Costa is at the center of it all. To a certain group of smitten young women, he is known as Sire―the leader of their counter-culture movement, the charming man who speaks eloquently and hands out hallucinogenic drugs like candy. But beneath his benign persona lies a twisted and uncontrollable rage that threatens to break loose at any moment. Tony Costa is the most dangerous man on Cape Cod, and no one who crosses his path is safe.

When young women begin to disappear, Costa’s natural charisma and good looks initially protect him from suspicion. But as the bodies are discovered, the police close in on him as the key suspect. Meanwhile, local writers Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer are locked in a desperate race to secure their legacies as great literary icons―and they both set their sights on Tony Costa and the drug-soaked hippie culture that he embodies as their next promising subject, launching independent investigations that stoke the competitive fires between two of the greatest American writers.

Immersive, unflinching, and shocking, Helltown is a landmark true crime narrative that transports us back to the turbulent late 1960s, reveals the secrets of a notorious serial killer, and unspools the threads connecting Costa, Vonnegut, and Mailer in the seaside city that played host to horrors unlike any ever seen before. New York Times bestselling author Casey Sherman has crafted a stunner.

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Casey Sherman’s Helltown not only explores serial killer, Tony Costa, but weaves into the mix writers Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut who were living on Cape Cod at the time and write about the murders.

I found the involvement and lives of Mailer and Vonnegut to be almost as interesting at the true crime story but did think that the author sometimes reached a bit too far by adding in sections on Kennedy and Chappaquiddick (interesting information, but only peripherally related to the the topic) and the Charles Manson killing spree. As I neared the end of the book, I had the unfortunate observation that this is interesting stuff but it goes on and on.

Tony Costa was a drug dealer, thief, and sometime carpenter who killed small pets and other creatures before moving on to human beings. He was convicted of killing two women who were visiting Provincetown, MA from Rhode Island and was suspected in the deaths of three other women. That number is probably larger since he spent time in California and at least one California acquaintance of his was never seen again. The descriptions of what he did to the women was graphic and gruesome and I may have (I did, I did!) skipped over reading details.

In the present day, we are so used to all of the science that goes into police investigations that it’s fascinating to return to a time when cases weren’t solved by DNA testing and also a little frustrating. And also, what people said to each other and how they behaved would give the politically correct police aneurysms. People were not all sweetness and light as people who fondly look toward the past would have you believe. These things alone make for illuminating reading.

For the most part Helltown kept me interested but I had two gripes. The first–Sherman’s use of dialogue–annoyed me because of how stilted it sounded, not at all like real conversation. He obtained some from interviews, but it’s unclear as to whether he made some of it up or not. The second was including fiction. Perhaps Sherman was inspired by both Vonnegut and Mailer, who created fictions in their non-fiction, to include people/scenes birthed from his imagination but when I learned that certain scenes were fabricated, I was disappointed. The characters and scenes felt like part of the true narrative but they weren’t true. Did I wish I had known that there might be a helping of fiction in this true crime before I began reading? Probably. I think it would have lessened the disappointment I felt at the end. But at least now you’re warned.

All in all an interesting book about a serial killer and two brilliant but difficult writers.

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

6 thoughts on “Review of Helltown by Casey Sherman #SDME

    1. My impression is that some true crime writers might take some liberties for describing a day or a place, dialogue might be taken from notes or recordings, but the idea of adding characters and scenes seem pretty egregious. But then, I don’t know what Capote and Mailer did when they wrote “true crime.” Vonnegut, it’s noted, elaborated on a relationship between his daughter and the killer that didn’t exist in order to provide a hook for his story. So . . .?

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