My long-time online parenting group (been with them twenty years now!) has a book group, and of course I’m one of the admins. Every Wednesday, we chat about what we’re currently reading, and a few months ago, someone mentioned that they were reading Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases by Paul Holes (Celadon Books, 2022). My brain immediately perked up, and off I trotted to my library’s website. Sure enough, they had it, and just as I expected, it was checked out…and likely would be for a good long time. ‘No worries,’ I thought. ‘I have plenty of other books to read in the meantime.’ But on this last library trip, Unmasked was on the new books shelf. YOINK!
Paul Holes worked for various offices in Contra Costa County, California, solving both active and cold cases, some of them well-known. Jaycee Dugard was discovered on his watch; his work with DNA helped to finally identify the Golden State Killer after decades. He was good at his job, and having served in that role for twenty-seven years before retiring, he’s seen some terrible, awful things. And he’s here in this memoir to tell you all about them.
For the sensitive reader, there are a few stomach-turning moments where the descriptions get a little graphic, but for the most part, Mr. Holes keeps that part calm. It’s more the details of what happened that are tough to read. Children and young women, mainly, ripped from their families, often times without a trace. Horrible suffering for both the victim and their families and loved ones. Paul Holes was privy to all of it over his career, and the horrors took their toll on him as well. This brutally honest memoir shows not just the brutality of crime but what it costs those tasked with solving them.
What struck me most about this book was its honesty. Paul Holes pulls no punches when it comes to what a shitty father and husband he’s been, in large part because of the demands of his work (and this goes for both the PTSD it caused him and how his brain is naturally wired to get obsessive about his cases). He drank too much, he spent far too much time at work, he had a hard time letting go of work once he did return home. The crimes he worked also destroyed his first marriage and deeply damaged his second as well; they weren’t the sole cause, and maybe he would’ve been just as crummy of a husband and father if he’d been a dentist or accountant, but the horrors he dealt with every day at work definitely didn’t help. His honesty at just how awful he was, however, is refreshing.
This is a grisly peek into what goes on behind the scenes of all those true crime podcasts and documentaries that so many of us binge-watch. It’s more than DNA swabs and footprint casts; it’s maggots and rot and murders continuing to ruin families because there’s not enough usable evidence. It’s horror on every side, but if true crime is something that intrigues you, you’ll do yourself a favor by delving more into this behind-the-scenes story.