Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Mark Bowden has spent much of his life reporting on the darker side of America, and in The Last Stone he recounts the story of a cold case which not long ago reached its conclusion. Taking us back to Washington, D.C. in 1975, Bowden plunges into the investigation behind the disappearance of two young girls from a shopping mall, to its great breakthrough in 2013.
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Mark Bowden Finishes the Story
Cold cases have the distinction of capturing our interest more than any others, largely for two reasons: they tell true stories in which culprits managed to evade justice, and their lack of resolution plays on the intrigue created by any mystery. In The Last Stone, Mark Bowden returns to finish a case he himself reported in on the mid-1970s.
Bowden begins at the logical point, taking us to the very beginning of the case on March 29th, 1975, in Washington, D.C., where two young sisters aged ten and twelve, Katherine and Sheila Lyon, go missing in a suburban shopping mall. The author himself was covering the first few weeks of the affair for a Baltimore newspaper.
As the shock of the event spreads through the community, a massive police effort is launched to find the two sisters. Unfortunately for everyone involved, their attempts did not produce any results, and eventually the investigation was shelved as a cold case, with all the grief it brought seeing no prospect of closure.
Unexpectedly enough, in 2013 a cold case squad detective finally found an overlooked piece of evidence, one which pointed them to a specific man: Lloyd Welch, serving prison time for child molestation in Delaware. A compulsive liar and long-time criminal, Welch wasn’t about to make himself an easy target.
The interrogation of Lloyd Welch is given special attention, detailing how the investigators managed to eventually unravel his tongue and ascertain his culpability of the crime in 1975. Not stopping there, it offers a peek inside the mind if a uniquely disturbed individual, one we might never hope to truly understand.
The Art of Interrogation in The Last Stone
The brunt of the book is dedicated to the interrogation of Welch, and if it doesn’t pique your interest, rest assured we’re not being faced with a typical scenario where the whole thing is conducted as a mere formality. On the contrary, Lloyd proved himself to be a worthy adversary for the battle of wits he was fighting against Davis, the main detective on the case.
Nobody ever tells you when you go into police work that it will require dishonesty.― Mark Bowden, The Last Stone
Over a period of a year and a half, we see how Davis slowly unravels his suspect’s web of lies, how he pulls the truth from him in small and subtle manners until he has more information out of him than he could have ever expected.
We are made to understand just how difficult of a task it was for the detective, to ingratiate himself with a convicted pedophile and potential murderer, to dive into his mess of a world over and over again in search of answers. It is difficult to believe a person who wouldn’t be changed by the experience, and personally, elicited a newfound respect for the people doing this job.
It’s quite interesting to see the psychological levers the investigation team presses on to get various reactions of out of Welch, and perhaps most captivating is how they help him dig his own hole, in the process revealing the kind of man he really is. While reading the book can’t compare to the detectives’ work, it certainly won’t leave you feeling clean at the end.
What struck me the most in Mark Bowden‘s approach is how, despite everything Welch had done, he still found it in himself to depict him as a human being. While it is tempting to dehumanize the monsters among us, it is important to always remember how little separates us from them, and for this I commend the author.
Closure at Last
As I mentioned it above, much of the book is dedicated to the interrogation which resulted from the breakthrough achieved by the cold case squad. However, Bowden also takes some time to step away from it and examine the crime in all of its aspects, from the impact of the girls’ initial disappearance to the eventual conclusion which, at the start, felt unpredictable
It was hard to overestimate the desire of a man living in isolation to talk.― Mark Bowden, The Last Stone
I imagine it helped the author a fair bit to have been an active journalist covering the events while they were happening in 1975. He effortlessly makes us see the events through the eyes of those who were personally-involved at the time, showing how panic and grief took hold of an entire community who, in a sense, did come together in a time of tragedy.
The victims and their family are treated with the utmost care and respect, and while it’s a difficult line to tread, Bowden doesn’t sensationalize their story or relegate them to the background in favour of making Welch the star of the show. The suffering of victims should always take precedence over the stories of their tormentors, no matter how difficult it might seem.
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Speaking of the main culprit’s story, as you might imagine, we are treated to a vast wealth of information not only about the man himself, but also his extended family who ended up being as much party to the crime as him. I want to reiterate once again: the subject of The Last Stone is a hefty one, and the content naturally follows suit.
Ultimately, I cannot make a statement on how closure feels in a case like this one, especially since it won’t bring anyone back, but I must commend everyone involved for making the monumental effort to bring it about.
The Final Verdict
The Last Stone by Mark Bowden is a phenomenally-detailed and profoundly touching account of a cold case’s resolution by detectives willing to dive into the heart of darkness time and time again. It celebrates the lives of the victims, and provides invaluable insight into a madness we’re never too far from.
If you’re interested in true crime stories, and especially cold cases which finally reach a resolution, then I strongly recommend you add this book to your collection.
Video: Mark Bowden In conversation with Catherine M. Recker
Mark Bowden is an American author best-known for his piercing outlooks on the recent history of his country. His twenty years spent as a journalist marked his writing quite noticeably; he has published a number of non-fiction books, including Black Hawk Down (which became a bestseller), Guests of the Ayatollah, Killing Pablo and Hue 1968.