"Murder at 40 Below: True Crime Stories from Alaska" by Tom Brennan (Epicenter Press, softbound, 160 pp., Index, illustrations by Brian Sostrum, $14.95).
A wonderfully tacky map illustrated with a cherub, guns, a knife, a nude woman, skulls and handcuffs serves as a tacit introduction to Tom Brennan's non-fiction collection of 10 true crime stories from the Last Frontier.
"Murder at 40 Below" is enjoyable reading for those who like Ann Rule's style of whodunit and don't mind the occasional gory detail. Stories are recreated from an omniscient viewpoint that tells the audience in no uncertain terms how the killer's childhood shaped him, how he got blood on his clothes and what he did with the blunt instrument.
Brennan, like Rule, interviewed investigators, neighbors, and eyewitnesses, read police files, books and newspaper archives, and talked to reporters who had covered the stories, especially Sheila Toomey of the Anchorage Daily News, who wrote the book's Foreword. "I have tried to provide enough information to enable readers to relive the events themselves," he writes. He succeeds admirably.
All ten stories tell of crimes which have been solved. They range from individual crimes of passion to sudden mass killings and carefully planned, cold-blood serial butchery. Having lived in the Anchorage area during the reigns of Charles Meach and Robert Hansen, I know first-hand how the banks of the Knik River, the McHugh Creek picnic grounds and the secluded bike paths along Ship Creek, in Kincaid Park and elsewhere began to seem haunted by evil. I interviewed one young woman who was raped in daylight on a bike path paralleling a main thoroughfare while cars roared past and her small dog anxiously waited.
Baker and cake decorator Robert Hansen, for example, killed at least 17 young women in a 12-year career of hunting human trophies in the Anchorage area. He often flew young women out to Knik River in his small plane and made them play prey while he pursued them, then buried them there in shallow graves. Hansen came and went on work release from Alaska Psychiatric Institute, attacking and killing people on bike paths and in parks. Michael Silka took seven lives on one spring day in 1984 at Manley Hot Springs. Louis Hastings killed six and wounded two at McCarthy.
In his preface, Brennan writes, "Extreme cold, long winter nights - even the continuous sunlight of summer - can affect the minds of those living on the emotional edge. Many of the murderers described here were misfits who retreated from civilization to build new lives in the wilderness, but found the North Country even harder to handle than the societies they left. Eventually the misfits exploded and people died."
Juneau comes into play in "Murder at 40 Below" in the form of construction worker Robert Stroud. His crime, Brennan makes clear, was not "notorious." "Instead he shot a grifter whose death was a civic improvement." But for shooting the bartender who beat his girlfriend, Stroud was given the maximum sentence and became a troublesome prisoner, whose sentence grew to encompass the rest of his life, 54 years.
Brennan is a newspaper editor, columnist and business consultant who has lived in Anchorage since 1967. He worked for many years in the oil industry both as an in-house executive and external consultant.