A memorial for a victim in the Gilgo Beach murders...

A memorial for a victim in the Gilgo Beach murders along Ocean Parkway. Credit: Newsday Thomas A. Ferrara

LOST GIRLS: An Unsolved American Mystery, by Robert Kolker. Harper, 399 pp., $25.99.

On a Saturday afternoon in December 2010, a German shepherd named Blue snuffed along a parkway near Gilgo Beach, a few miles from Fire Island. Blue's partner, a Suffolk County detective, had him out on a training session just before the first snow that year. The dog's tail wagged and he started digging. He pawed down to burlap.

It turned out there were four burlap bags, buried at nearly equal intervals, all 50 feet from the causeway. Each held what had once been a young woman who sold sex on Craigslist. Two had gone missing that year, one in 2009, the earliest in 2007. By the time a fifth body was found -- apparently strangled -- in a nearby marsh, some in the media had grown restless. "I can't believe they're doing all this for a whore," said a member of a television crew.

Robert Kolker, a reporter for New York magazine, jotted down the remark. He had no trouble paying attention. Six months before the fifth skeleton surfaced, he wrote a riveting piece called "A Serial Killer in Common." As the title suggests, Kolker focused on the slain, and the mothers and sisters they left in their wake -- women who grieved and sometimes bonded and occasionally raged against a police investigation that, so far, has gone nowhere.

Kolker calls the book version of this story "Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery." His writing is clean and his tone controlled. For some, he notes, "to say the victims were just Craigslist hookers" earning $200 an hour made them "practically interchangeable -- lost souls who were dead, in a fashion, long before they actually disappeared. There is a story our culture tells about people like them, a conventional way of thinking about how young girls fall into a life of prostitution."

"Lost Girls" asks instead that readers pause over the arc of five short lives, and consider the way the Internet has greased the transactional aspect of prostitution. Kolker indulges in zero preaching and very little sociology; his is the lens of a classic police reporter. And often in "Lost Girls," the facts are eloquent in themselves.

This well-structured book helps its reader keep track of a welter of families, aliases, alliances, street characters, conspiracy notions and an unnervingly insular gated community called Oak Beach, from which the fifth victim was seen fleeing six months before Blue nosed up the first cadaver. Long Islanders will be particularly engrossed by a 21-page section called "Interlude: Oak Beach, 2010," in which Kolker digs below the Twin Peaks-like gloss on this seaside outpost of 72 homes, where "a woman had gone around the neighborhood banging on doors and screaming bloody murder before disappearing into the night."

That woman was Shannan Gilbert, 24, "a tattoo of cherries on her left wrist, a scorpion tattooed on her back." She grew up in upstate Ellenville, where her old friends "say that half of their classmates are dead, in jail, or on drugs." Shannan's mother fobbed her off into foster care -- apparently because the child displeased one of the mother's boyfriends, according to Shannan's sister, who remained at home. Shannan was pretty and smart; she graduated from high school early, but she also had a beau who broke her jaw. For protection on Manhattan sex calls, she hired a driver who pocketed a third of her pay. On the night she disappeared, her driver was her regular: Michael Pak.

Kolker writes, "Michael would pull up to some prearranged corner, and she'd pile into the SUV with all her stuff: a tall soda from McDonald's, often spiked with vodka; a bag with extra clothes; her purse; a book from one of her online college classes, and a netbook she'd use to post and refresh her Craigslist profile." Such detail adds welcome complexity to these women.

This isn't pleasant reading, but it never feels gratuitous. "Lost Girls" is lifted by its strong, subtle design -- as Kolker introduces each character in girlhood, a full-page map faces the chapter, locating the victim's hometown. The maps assert, quite movingly, "She was here." She had a beginning, not merely a lurid end.

Still, the doomed young woman is a figure few storytellers can resist. Shakespeare had his Ophelia; Theodore Dreiser concocted his Sister Carrie. The "Lost Girls," Kolker concludes, "weren't angels. They weren't devils," -- a safe observation, but hardly astute, or useful. We sense him keeping his skirts clean, careful not to critique prostitution itself, a feature of "nearly every human civilization." No matter. We hear the howl of the victims' families clear enough.

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