DNF files: Hell Town

Hell Town: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer on Cape Cod

By Casey Sherman

Page I bailed on: 79

Verdict: I was looking forward to this, as I didn’t know anything about Tony Costa and the rampage he went on in 1969 where he killed a number of young women on Cape Cod. But it put me off right away with the novelistic treatment of its subject. Here’s the first sentence: “The prisoner closed his dark eyes and inhaled, taking the warm air of midspring deep into his lungs.” Talk about sounding a false note. I mean, I suppose Costa at some point on the day in question closed his eyes and took a deep breath, so there’s no saying Sherman is wrong here. But at the same time he’s clearly just making it up. As are subsequent accounts of Costa’s mental operations (“his thoughts turned to . . .”, etc.). Costa did write a sort of memoir while in prison that Sherman draws on here, but it’s hardly a reliable source. Meanwhile, what sources he does refer to are only sparingly referenced in the endnotes.

The “non-fiction novel” is a bastard genre I don’t care for, and it’s very much the hell that Hell Town was on a  highway to. To take just a couple of related examples, at one point Sydney Monzon is out late driving with Costa and he leaves the car to break into a medical office so he can steal some drugs. Sitting in the car, “She fiddled with the radio and landed on Hugo Montenegro’s orchestral from the Clint Eastwood film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which was nearing the top of the Billboard charts. She now felt a bit like a desperado herself as she sat in wait for her companion to make his score.” Then, later in the book, Patricia Walsh and Mary Anne Wysocki are described driving to Cape Cod: “the young women listened to the car radio and the sounds of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ which at that moment was the number one song on the Billboard charts and had dominated the airplay at local radio stations.”

At the time, the only witnesses here would have been the three women themselves, as no one else was with them. And Costa soon killed all three. So how does Sherman know what they were listening to on their car radios? How does he know they had the radios on at all? There are no sources for this guesswork because none are available. Instead we’re just pointed to the songs that were big at the time, according to Billboard Magazine. And why would Sherman assume that Monzon felt like a desperado? I would have thought she’d be nervous as hell.

It was at the second of these car-radio scenes that I gave up. But I hadn’t been enjoying the book up till then. Patches of dialogue, for which again Sherman seems to have no source, are related directly and sound highly dubious. At one point Costa, who was a police informer as well as a drug peddler, asks the local police chief for a gun so that he can protect himself. The chief denies his request. Costa responds: “I’m astonished, and I cannot believe your indifference. You will not offer me protection until there is a violent act against me?” Really? That’s what he said? Those exact words? I don’t believe it. Not without a tape recording. And maybe not even then.

The chapters oddly alternate between telling Costa’s story and the literary rivalry of Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. This didn’t interest me at all, as I already knew something about them. What I was hoping for was more along the lines of a cultural-historical commentary about the nightmare that the hippie movement turned into, sort of like what Helter Skelter did with the Manson case, but that didn’t seem to be on tap. And to top it off the writing is just hack work. Just before killing Monzon, Costa has a brief, abortive make-out session with her in his car. Did this happen? No way to know. So I guess Sherman was either taking Costa’s word for it or making it up. How does it go down? “They kissed as droplets of rain rolled down the windshield like tears on a baby’s cheek.” Ye gods. Tears like rain. And a baby’s tears. Why? Because a baby evokes pathos and the imminent murder of innocence? Because they’re extra soft? But a baby’s tears are more likely to be accompanied with red-faced screaming rather than make one think of tender lovemaking. Or duplicitous lovemaking, since babies are nothing if not authentic in their rage. The simile is ridiculous. There was no way I was going to read 400 pages of this. Begone!

The DNF files


4 thoughts on “DNF files: Hell Town

  1. Haha WTH? Rain like babies tears is a bit over the top. Was he channeling Roy do you think? “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain… Time to die.”


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