The subtitle says it all: “A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan.”
When Mark Pinsky first heard of the death of a young VISTA volunteer in the mountains of western North Carolina, he was just out of college, aiming at a journalism career with a decided political bent. She seemed like a lot of people he knew who had ideas about how to make a better world, and when time passed and her murder remained unsolved, it bothered him.
It continued to bother him over decades to come, as he covered murder trials (Jeffrey MacDonald, Ted Bundy, and others with more political agendas) as both a freelancer and a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. Periodically he returned to the North Carolina mountains, looking into the death of a young woman he never knew who had been long forgotten. He swung from covering murder trials to covering religion, then moved to the Orlando Sentinel and published such books as The Gospel According to the Simpsons and The Gospel According to Disney.
Pinsky’s visits to the North Carolina mountains became a regular fall event, as he interviewed witnesses (many now deceased) and followed leads that often went nowhere. It wasn’t the kind of obsession that ruins a life, which by now included a wife and two children, but it was the kind that meant one day his son came home from middle school and found a couple of agents from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation sitting at the kitchen table, looking through Dad’s files. With Dad’s blessing.
The journalist had become inextricably intertwined with the investigation. Had in fact become the heart of the investigation.
According to the State of North Carolina, the murder of Nancy Morgan remains unsolved. But as far as I’m concerned, Pinsky has solved it, and that is remarkable in itself. True crime is not a genre where the journalist solves the crime, except on television. And there hasn’t exactly been a continuing clamor for justice. Hardly anybody is still around who knew the victim, or misses her.
I’ve known Mark Pinsky since we were both at Duke, and read this book in manuscript a few years ago. I found it fascinating, but worried that the ending was so ambiguous—true crime demands a resolution, or at least an outrage. This concern also bothered his agent and a lot of publishers. But he kept on revising, hiring editors and soliciting opinions from respected colleagues, trying to find a way to bring this book to the world.
And here is where the story moves into fairy tale territory. A small publisher decided to take a chance, and has treated it well. Publisher’s Weekly made it a Pick of the Week.
Every writer who has anguished that since four agents didn’t like his book he’ll have to publish it himself, or who is certain that the first draft or the second or the third is perfect, or who decides a topic is just too much trouble should be required to read this book. I was also going to say that anybody who aspires to print journalism should as well, but considering the state of print journalism, it’s difficult to imagine people entering the field with that level of persistence.
Because persistence can indeed move mountains, including the one where Nancy Morgan died in 1971.