Somewhere in the giant mass of bookmarked pages I have in Google Chrome, there’s a folder called “Story Gold.” It’s where I tuck away the pieces of journalism that I can’t get out of my head. I’ve got everything from Ernie Pyle’s “The Death of Captain Waskow,” which I read on an almost monthly basis, to Eli Sanders’ 2011 Pulitzer-winning saga “The Bravest Woman in Seattle.” Every once in a while I’ll click through the list and re-read a piece or two, but I have a strict policy that nothing goes into that folder unless I’ve read the story in its entirety.
I just added a new piece today. Tom French’s 1998 Pulitzer winner for features writing, “Angels and Demons.”
It’s less a newspaper story than it is a novella. It’s massive – a commenter on Ben Mongomery’s narrative nonfiction blog, Gangrey, says the entire story filled 78 printed pages. French spent 3 years reporting and writing the seven chapter series about an Ohio mother and her two teenage daughters, who were raped and murdered in 1989 while on vacation in Tampa Bay.
The story draws you in completely. I stumbled on the story last night at about 7 p.m., and just started casually reading, definitely not intending to finish the entire thing. But this isn’t the kind of story you just casually read. French is a master of soaking the reader in the narrative – the story reads like a modern-day film noir, exploring every angle of the tragedy, from Jo, Michelle and Christe Rogers’ backstory, to the final act when their murderer is brought to justice.
I consider it a huge credit to French’s skills as a writer that everything about this story still resonates. It’s been over 20 years since the murders, and there’s been no shortage of higher-profile cases in the intervening years, but this one still hurts to read. The random happenstance that led the family to their deaths, the shock of their family and friends, the agony of a father and husband left without a family.
Just read it. Pay attention to the characters and the setting. Think about what kind of reporting skills French had to use to get this story from as many points of view as he did. It makes me want to be a better reporter. It challenges us to sack up and have the courage to tackle something with this much pathos and this much heart.