In February 1969, the bodies of four women were discovered buried in a North Truro Cemetery on Cape Cod. The bodies reflected gruesome attacks that involved dismemberment and other despicable acts. The victims were in their late teens or early twenties and according to police sources the murderer, Antone “Tony” Costa was suspected of killing a total of eight women. The details associated with the investigation and conviction of the serial killer are the subject of Casey Sherman’s latest book, HELLTOWN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF A SERIAL KILLER ON CAPE COD. Sherman, a bestselling author of fifteen books including such topics as the mobster Whitey Bulger, the Boston Strangler, and the assassination of John Lennon, grew up on Cape Cod, attending Barnstable High School and shares his extensive knowledge of the region in his narrative.
Sherman has created a book with aspects of fictional storytelling as he writes in the author’s note, that “a work of fiction can benefit from elements of fiction storytelling.” The book is a mishmash of fact and fiction, filled with invented dialogue interspersed with actual events. In part, HELLTOWN, the nickname given to the Cape Cod community of Provincetown in the 17th century because of its affinity with drinking, gambling, and other vices of the time – reads like a novel.
Sherman has exceptional command of the material relying on interviews, primary research, his personal knowledge of the case and area, including Costa’s own unpublished autobiography “Resurrection,” as he reconstructs each murder scene, provided knowledge of the victims, highlights a careful reconstruction of the investigation zeroing in on the detectives involved, the trial itself, and Costa’s incarceration at the Walpole State Prison until he committed suicide on May 12, 1974. The book itself has a number of ancillary stories particularly the relationship between writers Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer who both lived on the Cape for periods of time. Their rivalry is explored as is their relationship to Costa, especially the role of Vonnegut when the killer was imprisoned.
For the people of the area the case and hunt for the serial killer reminded them of the Boston Strangler case of Albert De Salvo that had been solved two years earlier. Sherman explores the reasons behind the killings focusing on Costa’s split personality; the good Tony, and his alter ego, Cory Devereaux. The author recreates conversations between the two elements of Costa’s personality and offers a psychological profile dealing with his complex relationship with his mother. Sherman adduces that Costa idealized his father and resented the fact that his mother remarried. As a young man he craved the attention of his mother and had to fight for her affection with two unwelcome rivals; his stepfather and his brother Vincent. According to Sherman’s analysis his mother had been taken away from him, therefore, somebody had to pay. The murders were a result of Costa’s convoluted thought process and the dichotomy that existed in his brain.
A number of important characters emerge in the narrative; George Killen, the chief investigator for the Bristol County District Attorney, Detective Bernie Flynn whose belief in understanding the active personalities of the victim led to an acquaintance of Costa who would expose the location of the buried body parts; Massachusetts State trooper, Edgar “Tom” Gunnery who focused on Costa from the outset and dug up the bodies at the cemetery; Maurice Goldman, Costa’s lawyer; Edmund Dinis, the Bristol County District Attorney who saw the murder case as an opportunity to advance his political career resulting in his sensationalizing events and outright lies, i.e., referring to Costa as “the Cape Cod vampire,” to achieve the notoriety he craved; and lastly of course Tony Costa.
Costa was a native of Somerville, MA and grew up with a deep interest in taxidermy. While growing up neighbors reported that he killed pigeons, squirrels, and household animals. He purchased a copy of Maynard’s MANUAL OF TAXIDERMY, whose instructions on how to skin animals was transferred onto Costa’s mutilated victims.
A further aspect of the story are the roles of Vonnegut and Mailer who are fascinated by the brutality of Costa’s actions. Their rivalry seems like a literary footnote to the murder narrative and seems rather irrelevant to the overall story. Sherman details Vonnegut’s jealousy and envy toward Mailer whose literary success won a Pulitzer and a National Book award for ARMIES OF THE NIGHT while Vonnegut struggled to complete what would become his masterpiece SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. While Mailer enjoyed his notoriety which led to, opposition to the Vietnam War, directing films, and a run for mayor of New York City; Vonnegut ran a failing Saab dealership and as an American GI in World War II he endured the psychological impact of living through the carpet bombing of Dresden, and was later captured and imprisoned by the Nazis. Vonnegut would cover the trial of Costa as a journalist and wrote about it for Life magazine in an article entitled “there’s a Maniac Loose Out There,” giving the false impression that his daughter Edie knew and was perhaps in danger from Costa. Mailer also followed the story and the trial and later used some of its details in an unsuccessful novel and film.
HELLTOWN successfully integrates Costa’s story with the major events and movements of the 1960s. Sherman discusses the Vietnam War, the impact of the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicago Democratic convention, the Apollo 11 moon landing, the death of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick Island, the Charles Manson killings along with other events and issues. The result is an interesting study of the mind of a seral killer and the impact of the violent murders on the community involved. The book is well written and at times mesmerizing, the result of which is a fascinating read.