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Originally published Sunday, July 21, 2013 at 5:05 AM

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‘Lost Girls’: real lives behind the lurid headlines

Robert Kolker’s nonfiction book “Lost Girls: An Unsolved Mystery” goes beyond the lurid headlines to examine the lives of five young prostitutes who turned up dead after disappearing between 2007 and 2010.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery’

by Robert Kolker

Harper, 416 pp., $25.95

While reading “Lost Girls,” the first book from New York magazine writer Robert Kolker, I received a television publicist’s email saying that Investigation Discovery’s “new sultry series ‘Poisoned Passions’ ” had an upcoming episode based in Skagit County: “In order to spice up their sex life, married couple Vanessa and Ken McBride enter the forbidden world of swingers. But when Vanessa breaks the lifestyle’s cardinal rule and falls in love with a swinger named Jeremy, she finds herself in the middle of a love triangle and a real-life murder mystery.”

Such dreck is a staple of Investigation Discovery, whose other true-crime shows include “Southern Fried Homicide” and “Wives with Knives.” It’s a parade of blood and violence — real blood, real violence — packaged for our entertainment, with cheesy re-enactments and romance-novel language.

These shows — and there are plenty of them on other networks, too — serve as counterpoint to Kolker’s treatment of a high-profile mystery on New York’s barrier islands, a collection of unsolved murders with all the makings of a lurid tale: the targeting of women who work as prostitutes; an apparent serial killer on the loose; bodies bundled in burlap and deposited on a beach; suspicions circulating in a reclusive, gated community.

But Kolker’s handling of these cases — and his treatment of five women who turned up dead after disappearing between 2007 and 2010 — is anything but lurid. With writing that is spare, almost muted, Kolker details the women’s childhoods and choices, tracing their steps from such scattered towns as Groton, Conn.; Ellenville, N.Y.; and Wilmington, N.C., through a series of low-paying jobs (cleaning offices, delivering pizzas, running a cash register), to working as prostitutes in the Internet age, advertising on Craigslist and making $4,500 a week or more.

Through Kolker’s sensitive telling, these five women become people in full, as likable and unlikable as most people you meet, but with more to overcome. “They weren’t angels. They weren’t devils,” Kolker writes. Collectively, their backgrounds have been lined with foster homes, teenage pregnancies, bipolar disorder, men who are absent or abusive, drug addiction, and childhood sexual abuse. Kolker chronicles each woman’s past with brutal directness, coming off as neither snob nor sap.

For these five women, hard work does not always bring rewards. There is Melissa, born to a teenage mother, left to police herself from a young age. She moves out before her senior year — yet still manages to complete high school, with A’s, and then graduates from beauty school, at a cost of $8,000. Her payoff for all this is a job at Supercuts.

In “Lost Girls,” Kolker doesn’t argue — not about the morality of prostitution, not about the potential culpability of Craigslist and other online sites. He just says what happened. He doesn’t wander into human trafficking or teenage prostitution, hot topics rife with unsubstantiated numbers. All the women were adults. None was trafficked.

Reporting on an open case can be difficult, because of limited access to law-enforcement records. But Kolker’s reporting shimmers; his narrative details pop, showing how immersed he became in the killings and their aftermath.

And by spending so much time with the victims’ families, Kolker captures the sordid allure of a notorious crime. He brings us the psychics, the web sleuths, the ridiculous Nancy Grace. He brings us the TV documentary makers — in this case, A&E — and shows how certain relatives, distant in life from those who died, can’t get enough of martyrdom; they manufacture opportunities to be filmed, collapsed and crying, turning grieving into theater.

Ken Armstrong: karmstrong@seattletimes.com. A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of “Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity,” winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best fact crime book.

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