Trace was originally one of my all-time favourite podcasts. I was obsessed by the unsolved case of Maria James, compulsively refreshing the feed for updates, and effusing about it to everyone I know. So, when the story was released in book form, my sister-in-law remembered my fascination and bought me a copy for Christmas. A+ gift giving, right there!

Get Trace here.
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Trace (the book) is billed as “the riveting inside story of a journalist’s cold-case investigation of a shocking murder”. It follows much the same trajectory as the podcast series did, with additional detail and insight into Brown’s experience and state-of-mind. If you listened in, like I did, you already know how it ends (or rather, how it doesn’t), but it’s still a cracking and compelling read.

In Part One (The Police Investigation), we get the lay of the land, the details of the crime that first captured Brown’s attention. It’s one that will get to the heart of any book-lover, and probably any parent, too. Maria James was an independent bookseller and single mother of two boys, Mark and Adam (the latter lives with cerebral palsy and Tourette’s syndrome). In June 1980, she was found dead, stabbed 68 times, in her flat behind the bookshop. To this day, no one has ever been charged with her murder.

For decades now (in fact, longer than Brown has been alive), Mark and Adam have lived in limbo, waiting for a breakthrough, to see their mother’s killer brought to justice.

This is the toll of cold cases: they’re never that temperature for those affected. And this is just one. There are another 1,300 cold cases sitting in boxes around the country.

Trace (Page 67)

That’s where Brown approaches Trace differently than many other true crime journalists. She is genuinely driven by a desire to help Mark and Adam, to resolve the unanswered question that has shaped their lives since childhood. She very deliberately steers away from the “entertainment” aspect of the genre, and spends a lot of time interrogating the ethics of what she’s doing. Ultimately, she decides that Trace is the best – and maybe the only – way to generate public interest in the case, and with public interest comes jogged memories and heavy consciences that might just see the crime solved. It’s imperative to her that Mark and Adam support what she’s doing, and they do.

Mark sees it as his final shot for an answer. If the podcast doesn’t succeed, his mother’s murder will never be solved.

Trace (Page 83)

At first, as Brown begins researching Trace, every “lead” comes to a dead end. This is a decades-old cold case, after all, and she’s stymied at every turn by witnesses who are deceased, files she can’t access, and evidence that has been destroyed. But then, in Parts Two (The Church) and Three (The Podcast), the story takes a sharp turn away from a straightforward murder investigation into institutional sexual abuse. Then, it shifts up a gear, into violent cults and police conspiracies.

This isn’t overreach, or hyperbole. This is actually what Brown found in her Trace investigation.

Do not pick Trace up if you have any kind of heightened sensitivity to child sexual abuse (or, y’know, murder). It’s not salacious, but Brown is thorough in her descriptions, in the interest of giving victims their voice and uncovering the truth. She doesn’t exclude her own subjectivity from the story, either – she’s very frank about how her stomach turns hearing these stories, and then again in relaying them to us in Trace. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for her, spending literal months of her life transcribing interview after interview about the most traumatic experiences of people she’s come to care for deeply.

Although Brown is mostly glowing in her description of the cops she talks to and the work they’ve done, she doesn’t shy away from the monumental police fuck-up that could see the case remain unsolved forever: the wrong items stored as evidence in the Maria James case file. She’s also highly critical (and rightly so) of their failure to interview Adam until decades after the murder. Had they accommodated his disabilities at the time and asked him crucial questions, they would have learned about the sexual abuse he experienced and told his mother about – the much-needed lead on motive.

So, in the final section (The Wait), Trace comes to an infuriatingly vague conclusion. After two years of work, Brown tracked down suspects, identified new witnesses, revealed institutional cover-ups, and found new evidence – but the murder remains unsolved. Brown acknowledges that this is going to be frustrating for readers who like neat stories with clear conclusions, but that’s not the way real life works.

I’d love to be able to bring you that update. But this is not a show, folks. This is someone’s death. And I can’t invent an ending – it’s real-life nonfiction. I want to scream, ‘Imagine how the James boys feel!’.

Trace (page 265)

But even with the open ending, I loved reading Trace as much as I loved listening to the podcast initially. Sure, it broke my heart and turned my stomach at times, but see above – that’s real life. I live in hope that Brown’s investigation, which is ongoing, brings some answers and closure for the James boys, and everyone else impacted by this horrific crime(s).

(P.S. If you’re wondering, here’s the latest I can find on the case since the publication of Trace – still no answers, but always, always, a few steps closer.)