The true crime genre has been having its moment. Yes, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood may have planted the seeds for the popular genre in 1965, but in recent years, Americans have chosen to inundate themselves with real-life tales of the gruesome and cold-hearted. There’s Serial, the podcast, Making a Murderer on Netflix, and countless retellings of Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. Perhaps it’s a morbid curiosity or our natural inclination for schadenfreude; it could also be our desire to prepare ourselves for the absolute worst. I would argue that an important element of any true crime story is solving it. Watching, reading, or listening to a yarn of how others decipher clues and analyze the evidence is exciting and soothing. The audience has faith in detectives who can turn the most inscrutable case into the truth through a series of systematic questions and investigation. And because most of us are only able to speculate from the comfort of our living rooms, we are rapt reading a book like Kathryn Miles’ Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders.
This is Miles’ first full-length book about a murder, but she’s been prolific over the last thirteen years. She has written about people and their pets in Adventures with Ari, “coffin ships” that crossed the Atlantic during the Irish Famine in All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship, and she takes on natural disaster in her books Superstorm: Nine Days inside Hurricane Sandy and Quakeland: On the Road to America’s Next Devastating Earthquake. In Trailed, she’s drawn to the Shenandoah murders, the gruesome 1996 killing of Laura “Lollie” Winans and Julie Williams, through a few personal connections. Miles taught at Unity College, a close-knit environmental school, where Lollie had been a student. Additionally, an avid hiker herself, Miles wants to feel confident on the Appalachian Trail and in our National Parks, a confidence shaken by this unsolved case.
Trailed is as compelling to read as the best documentaries and podcasts. In fact, just days after finishing the book, I realized I’d been so immersed in it, I couldn’t remember how I’d learned the story. As a narrator, Miles is honest and authentic. She portrays her younger self, unready for her first backpacking trip. “It was a miserable weekend,” she informs the reader, “I was underdressed, ill prepared, and bad tempered.” She shares moments that another, more self-conscious person, might have obscured from readers, like when Miles leaves a pork roast out to rot in order to find out when maggots would begin to gather. She writes honestly, “After the Cold Case Conference, any attempt I’d made to create healthy boundaries between me and the investigation into Julie and Lollie’s murder crumbled.” She later notes, “The truth was I had become feverish, if not altogether frantic, in my attempts to advance the case.” The reader feels Miles’ despair over whether the murder will ever be solved, whether law enforcement will come to see that the man they pinned the crime on is not the actual perpetrator.
The book is compelling and well-detailed. Miles provides a precise timeline leading up to and following the murder. She documents interviews with rangers, law enforcement, friends, family, lawyers, and forensic experts. She is nothing if not thorough, at one point soliciting twenty geneticists to look at FBI lab reports. Miles spares no details in bringing the victims, Julie and Lollie, to life. She includes their poetry and prose, describes their enthusiasm for the trip to Shenandoah National Park, as well as their devotion to one another. Miles breaks down upon seeing photos of Julie and Lollie’s murdered bodies. She writes, “I found myself apologizing repeatedly to the women as I pulled my knees up to my chest and rested my forehead there, weeping over what I saw.” The author is aware of how invasive it is to see pictures of these women at their most vulnerable without their permission. Moments like these remind the reader that the memory of Julie and Lollie, their lives and their murders, deserve respect and a sense of gravity, and Miles has accomplished that throughout the book.
Given the title’s similarity to Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, a reader may be tempted to regard Miles’ work as more of the same. In fact, it’s the opposite. Trailed does what McNamara would have done if she had lived to see the resolution of the unsolved crimes. Kathryn Miles takes us with her on an investigation that began long before Julie and Lollie step into Shenandoah, when Miles was a young backpacker herself. It doesn’t end until she finds herself at peace, satisfied with the resolution, sleeping in a tent once more.
Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders
By Kathryn Miles
Published May 3, 2022