Column: 'The Michigan Murders' is one of those rare books you re-read because the suspense remains
Review copies of books arrive with little fanfare in the AnnArbor.com newsroom, quietly making their way to a pile where we donate them toward charitable causes.
But that’s not what happened when the newly re-printed version of “The Michigan Murders” was passed into the vicinity of my desk, along with comments that agreed: This book was interesting, and its tale of one of Washtenaw County’s most notorious crime sprees deserved mention.
All of my colleagues had a story about the book — some had read it. Some wanted to. Most wondered about the central character and how he fared today.
My take was this: “The Michigan Murders” is one of those rare books that you re-read because the suspense remains even in the retelling. And in ways that I find hard to describe, my connections to that book — simply as a reader — feel life-altering.
It influenced how I consider personal safety. How I trust people. The ways I do my job and for what reasons. My understanding of this community, in the decades before I lived here and today.
“The Michigan Murders” tells the story from 1967 to 1970, when seven young women were abducted and killed in Washtenaw County. The youngest was 13; many were college students; all had been brutalized.
The discoveries of the bodies, as the pace of the killing accelerated in early 1969, panicked the community.
And all of that ceases to be distant history thanks to the research and storytelling in “The Michigan Murders,” which has kept memorable the details of the crimes and investigations — and reactions of this community — for decades.
At the time of its release, it garnered much attention for its writing style. The author, Edward Keyes, had a successful track record by co-authoring “The French Connection,” and the world of true crime writing could claim classics like “In Cold Blood” but far fewer churned-out, mass market paperbacks.
But the book also fell out of print, leaving dated copies on library shelves and resulting in random finds for yard sale and resale store shoppers.
Today, a new generation of readers are exposed to the story, thanks to the book’s reissue by the University of Michigan Press. The event took place quietly this fall, after editors searched for the right cover art and writers for the new prologue and epilogue. Both roadmap the journey of the book and John Norman Collins, who was convicted of one of the murders and linked to six of them, in the years after the original 1976 publication date.
“The Michigan Murders” merited a reissue because it resonates with readers. That’s particularly true in Washtenaw County, as Heather Newman, a staff member of the UMP, told me when I asked recently for more information.
The book chilled me when I first read it as a 7th grader who loved mysteries and stumbled upon it on a library shelf. Ann Arbor seemed so distant, but the ages of the victims — one just 13 — touched me. So did references to places familiar to my childhood in western Wayne County: Detroit Metropolitan Airport, I-94, Westland Mall.
As a newshound since I learned how to read, I knew the name John Norman Collins. But there always were plenty of other news stories to worry about, sometimes close to home and sometimes not.
And while reading continued as my primary hobby, over time, other true crime stories — which I read as light fare amid more intellectual pursuits in high school and later at the University of Michigan — overshadowed Keyes’ work in my memory and I forgot about it.
Years later, as a new, part-time police reporter at the now-closed Ypsilanti Press, I rediscovered the book.
The interest was fueled in part by a colleague on the police beat who approached the job with at least as much enthusiasm as I did. We listened to police scanners, and we listened to police stories as we both turned into familiar faces at crime scenes and ‘cop shops.’
Somehow, I ended up owning my own copy of “The Michigan Murders.” And my first summer on the police beat — a hot summer full of brush fires when I learned to talk to teenage witnesses to stabbings and parents who’d lost their children to accidents and violence — I reread it in a single sitting. It was a night in my sublet apartment near South University when my roommate was out of town, and it started out well. But soon I was unable to put it down, despite the terror I felt at being alone there that night.
My colleague read the book that summer, too, and we were mesmerized by our proximity to the horror and all of the places and actions that played a role in it 20 years earlier.
Those connections cemented the story in my memory. Times like the conversation with a state police diver who’s been mentioned in the book. The time when someone showed me a scrap book on the crimes, when the pseudonyms in the books turned into real women and girls, thanks to the names and photos in the yellowed newspaper clippings. The trip to the basement of the Michigan State Police post on Whittaker Road, where the sealed file cabinets held reports from investigators and witnesses.
We worked in the newsroom where Ypsilanti Press reporter John Cobb wrote the breaking coverage of the stores and parked where police searched his car when he showed up too early at scenes, sparking distrust.
We talked to police and attorneys and routinely wrote about judges and officials who’d had a role in the case.
We drove past the scenes of the crimes and the locations mentioned in the book and tried to imagine: What was it like back then?
Now, 40-some years after the crimes, I no longer wonder that. I’m older and I know this community far better, and as I re-read the book, I’m satisfied that I have a sense of what it was like.
Instead, my questions center on the victims: Who were they? And who remembers them today, for the people they were, people with real names that were protected by the author who told the last tales of their deaths?
And I wonder: How would the world respond if this had happened today?
It’s the type of serial crime, rooted in ongoing mystery — Why did he do it? Why were there so few clues in the other killings? — that could catch an author’s imagination today, too, and lead to re-telling.
Yet, today, serial crime can barely register on any meter of social awareness. There are TV talk shows. True crime television. “Mystery” programs crafted to keep a viewer entertained with dramatic narrative and real photos, and sometimes crime scene photos that, like so much in mainstream culture, just seem to push too far and reveal too much about the horrors behind the crime.
But there’s also the fear that the book evokes by telling the story through the eyes of those involved. And in not trying too hard to make the point that this community was terrified and these victims endured horror, Keyes perfectly delivers. By the time he’s detailing the shock of a police family realizing that a notorious murder had been committed in their Ypsilanti basement, by their own loved one, readers are feeling it, too.
I once thought that I’d discovered something special in this book, something that struck me personally in both the storytelling and the proximity to my own life.
What I’m learning with this new offering is that I’m not alone — this is a story that’s built a reputation behind it, holding onto many readers as it did me.
That started at the time of Collins’ arrest. In 1969, an Ypsilanti Press headline proclaimed, “Murder probe attracts newsmen around world,” as they descended upon Ypsilanti as news of the arrest spread and his preliminary examination — the first official unveiling of evidence behind the charges — was scheduled for the former courthouse at 206 N. Huron.
Three years later, in May 1972, another headline touched upon the murders: “Author of ‘French Connection’ probing coed murders.’
The former newspaper writer had researched the book later made into a popular 1970s film and by 1972 had a publishing contract to look into the Washtenaw County crimes. He interviewed the local investigators, and he researched the newspaper clippings.
According to the story about his visit to Ypsilanti: “The book will be an account of the ‘frightening and baffling murders’ and how they grabbed the community, Keyes said.”
Forty years later, it’s not always obvious how they grabbed the community.
Many locations in the book have changed dramatically: The murder scene on Earhart Road is an established subdivision. The rooming house on Emmet Street where Collins was arrested has housed generations of students since that time. Arborland has been reborn, and Inn America is now a memory, razed for a Washtenaw Avenue office building.
It may be true that many here have forgotten the crimes. And it’s certain that many newcomers to the community over the past four decades have no idea that they even occurred.
But the book still stands, as a story of suspense; as a cautionary tale for a trusting world; as a detailed piece of history in Washtenaw County.