Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York is a stunning addition to the gay corner of the true-crime genre. First-time author Elon Green wisely splits this book into two sections: the first half brings 80s and 90s Manhattan to life (with an interesting bit of Philadelphia’s gay scene included as well) and in doing so captures the energy of the city, as well as the civic side of the still-emerging gay rights movement (it took years of grassroots organizational effort and political pressure to train New York cops to take our deaths seriously– lessons, that, decades later, they are seemingly only ever able to apply to cisgender Caucasians). At that time our safe spaces consisted primarily of bars. The bar scene so lovingly recreated here served as the hunting grounds for a particularly devious, and until now, nearly forgotten serial killer. The best true crime books are stories of place as much as they are chronicles of sad circumstances, human devils and the grue they churn out. In Last Call the spotlight is on the Townhouse as several victims were culled from this storied piano bar. Patrons and staff were interviewed as the history of what can now be considered a gay New York City institution is in full detail here–with nary a cocktail napkin left unturned. However that other assassin, AIDS, is omnipresent as well. Green does a superb job describing how this dark force invaded the one place where gay men sought solace in song and drink, where they could finally let their guard down. Some drank too much and, looking for love or just a trick, never returned.
The second half of Last Call deals with the serial killer. The chilling biography of a murderer nearly caught and convicted twice before committing the crimes recorded in the previous section is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Forensic heroics are detailed at an intriguing clip (and trust me, that’s an important point, as true crime writers often lose the forest for the trees; the science on display here is on point and never overwhelms the humanity of the victims captured within this book). Resolute, dedicated police work finally catches up with this fiend (and all the expected turf wars and departmental politics such a decades-long pursuit entail are captured as well, again as supporting information that never exhausts or overwhelms). The satisfaction of justice served is tempered, however, as Green unearths evidence that the well-traveled killer likely murdered far afield and for decades, ultimately making this book the story of a serial killer whose true death toll will likely never be known.
As an investigative crime writer Elon puts in the work, with a sense of sensitivity and compassion. In the epilogue, he writes about how The Townhouse became more than a place to research, but somewhere to hang out, and how someone he was close to there was lost to COVID. Notably, he’s written elsewhere about the Doodler, an unusual and frightening gay San Francisco serial killer lost to history, eclipsed by the Zodiac and the Night Stalker. The care, the research, the investment on display in The Last Call signals to me, at least, that Elon Green rises above the function of a dispassionate observer. He writes like a communal friend.
by Elon Green
Hardcover, 9781250224354, March 2021