Title: The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad
Author: Stacy Horn
Genre: Nonfiction: real crime
An unflinching look at New York’s most enigmatic crimes and the cops who make it their job to solve them
Between 1985 and 2004, a staggering 8,894 unsolved murders were committed in New York City. Here is the first-ever inside look at the elite NYPD squad that cracks the “unsolvable” cases. Drawing on her unique access to the Cold Case Squad, Stacy Horn follows three tough, indefatigable cops as they sift through the clues to four puzzling murders, from the 1951 strangling of a young wife to a 1996 drug hit that claimed the lives of the parents of three children. As gripping as anything on TV—and much, much more authentic—The Restless Sleep is a completely addictive behind-the-scenes account of the people who offer a final resolution for the unavenged (from Goodreads).
Thoughts: First off, let me say that I read this book because it was chosen as one of the readalongs as part of Nonfiction November. Before I saw of the two choices for the readalong, I had never heard of The Restless Sleep. I already read the other option, Cleopatra: A Life, earlier in the year, and this one seemed interesting, so I decided to give it a go.
The Restless Sleep follows Stacy Horn, a reporter, as she explores the world of the New York City’s Cold Case Squad. Talking to the detectives and their supervisors, Horn follows the daily life of the department, explores some of the cases they are working on, and gives us a quick history of the Cold Case Squad and the interdepartmental politics within the Squad and the New York City Police Department that affect the detectives, their workload, and their moral.
Horn frames her exploration of the squad in the context of four separate cold cases, and the detectives working them. Linda Leon and Esteban Martinez were tortured and killed in their apartment in December, 1996, while their three young sons listened from their bedroom. Ronald Stapleton, a NYC cop, was shot and killed with his own gun, along a meat hook wielded by his assailant, while off duty in 1977. Fourteen year old Christine Diefenbach was beaten to death on an early February morning in 1988, when she left home to buy some milk. And in 1951, twenty-six year old Jean Sanseverino was strangled to death in her apartment and later found on her bed, still in her night cloths and socks.
I’ll be honest here and say that for the first 40 or so pages of this book, I was unsure and maybe a little bit underwhelmed. While I knew what Horn was trying to do- set the scene, introduce us to the detectives and their supervisors, tell us about the formation of the Cold Case Squad- I couldn’t help but find myself put off by her language and descriptions. It felt too much to me as if she was trying to model her book after some hardboiled crime fiction that she had read, where everything is cold and dark and damp and all the detectives are mean, gruff, and manly. It just didn’t sit well with me and it felt a little forced. I also found myself not really liking how she would sometimes pose rhetorical questions, a lot of the times with expletives ( ‘…the case goes cold, who gives a fuck?’) as I didn’t feel that they added anything of value and I felt like the language, the ‘fuck’s and ‘shit,’ etc., were used just to stress how ‘tough’ and ‘noir-like’ the Cold Case Squad is. It kind of rubbed me the wrong way.
Luckily for me, once Horn gets into the nitty-gritty of the cases, tracing the developments of the four investigations and the present efforts of the current Cold Case detectives, I became a lot more interested. I especially found the 1951 Jean Sanseverino case compelling. By 2005, no one is actively working the case, as it stands to reason that whoever killed Jean is dead, but Horn lays out the case for us. She tells us about Jean’s childhood in rural Alabama and her move to New York. She reconstructs for us the timeline of the night Jean was murdered, the possible suspects, and what the police working the case at the time did and thought. She even manages to get one of the current Cold Case Squad detectives to take a look at the case, and he comes to his own conclusions as to what actually happened, although by this time too much time has passed for any definitive answers.
By the end of the book, some of the four cases are definitively solved, and some of the four are definitively not. I was very much touched by the Christine Diefenbach case as well. The detective working the case in2005, Tommy Wray, believes that the case is a solvable one and his immediate supervisor agrees. I was very impressed how Wray would just keep looking- interviewing people again and again, searching for evidence that was mislaid in the records office years ago, sending out for new tests on evidence which have been developed since the time of Christine’s death. In the book, Wray is approaching retirement and he says his intention is not to do so until he is able to give Christine’s family some type of closure.
The Restless Sleep ends with her murder still unsolved; afterwards I googled the case and found that Wray was featured in an article form a few years ago. In the time since The Restless Sleep was published, it seems that interdepartmental politics has had a drastic effect on the Cold Case Squad. From 37 full-time detectives at the time Horn was writing, the squad now has around 12, I think. All the original detectives that came onto the squad in its formation have retired, including Wray. The article I read talks about the Christine Diefenbach case, too. Wray had continued to slowly build the case but it seems that new higher-ups wanted him, and the other Cold Case detectives, to have a faster turn around then Wray claims was feasible. He still thinks the case can be solved, but in the end he decided to retire when confronted with a management that he felt did not understand, or support, what the Cold Case Squad was doing.
I thought this was very sad, and the slimming down of the squad troubling. The murder rate of NYC has drastically dropped in the past two decades, but the percentage of unsolved murders has continued to increase. This is for a number of reasons which Horn makes clear, the not least of which is that the overwhelming majority of new murders are now drug-related or otherwise affiliated with other sorts of crime. Regardless, Horn makes the point that every life, and so every death, matters. While objectively I can understand the factors that went into the downsizing of the Cold Case Squad, I can’t help but feel upset by it. What the Cold Case Squad detectives did, and continue to do, is amazing and important and they deserve everyone’s support and admiration.
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