reviewed by Cara DiCostanzo
I rarely say this but this novel, part true crime and part fictionalization of a serial killer in Provincetown in the late 1960s, is amazing.
With the rivalry of writers, Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer who lived on the same street to a bit of Chappaquidik, to a piece of the Manson murders, this book has it all. With admitting that the first chapters did not pull me in, I absolutely could not put it down after the third or fourth chapter.
Antone “Tony” Costa was a serial killer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, who achieved notoriety, similar to Charles Manson, for the brutal murders of several woman, cutting them into pieces, removing their heads in one instance and cutting them in half, burying them in the woods in Truro. On January 24, 1969, Patricia Walsh and Mary Anne Wysocki vanished during a trip to Provincetown from their hometown in Providence, Rhode Island. They were staying in a rooming house where Tony Costa was also staying. They found their bodies when a rival of Tony, Cory Deveraux, pointed out Costa’s secret marijuana garden in the woods of Truro. While searching for Walsh and Wysocki’s bodies, they were able to uncover the bodies of Susan Perry and Sydney Monzon, also reported missing. All bodies were mutilated and in various states of decay. Tony Costa was also in possession of Walsh’s Volkswagen, which he said had been exchanged for drugs. The murders were committed around the same time as the Manson murders in Los Angeles, and the bodies were similarly mutilated. Like Manson, Costa had his own following, though smaller.
District Attorney Edmund Dinis, running for re-election in Provincetown, gained notoriety for his garish description of the murders – “The hearts of each girl had been removed from the bodies and were not in the graves…Each body was cut into as many parts as there are joints.” He went on to say also that there were teeth marks on the bodies as well, coining the phrase “vampire killer.” Dinis was also infamous for his involvement in the incident at Chappaquiddick involving Ted Kennedy and his cover-up of certain details as to not rile the infamous Kennedy family, royalty in Massachusetts.
Rival writers Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. lived down the street from each other in Provincetown and were bitter rivals. While Mailer had no connection to the Costa murders, Vonnegut’s daughter Edie had possibly met Costa in another setting, though she “wasn’t sure it was him”. While both wrote about this case. Mailer writing Tough Guys Don’t Dance and Vonnegut’s anthologizing in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons, Vonnegut was infinitely more successful., even writing an article for Life magazine. Sherman does an excellent job of giving interesting biographies of both prolific authors. Though I wished for more on the actual serial killer than the authors, who were at least 50% of the book.
While Sherman took conversational liberties in Helltown, specifically the dialogue between Costa and his alter ego, Cory Deveraux, also the name of his rival in the Provincetown drug trade. The author, in his final notes, had also gained access to Costa’s unpublished manuscript, which I am sure gave him credible research. While Helltown is an amazing recount of this true crime, it is so much more. Sherman was able to flawlessly weave stories that happened around the same time. One of the best books I have read this year.
More True Crime
The Villains of True Crime
The Predators of True Crime Think Differently
The Dark Influence of True Crime on Modern Fiction
True Crime and Espionage
The World of Lies Behind the Alger Hiss Spy Trial