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When Los Angeles free-lance journalist Deanne Stillman heard about a 1991 double murder in a strangely named Mojave Desert town that is also home to a huge U.S. Marine base, she just knew she would write about it someday. So she began traveling to Twentynine Palms, a town of about 20,000 (including the military population) that is the last stop on Highway 62, far removed from coastal California. Although Stillman’s account of the crime is relatively slim, she tries to explain a lot in these pages, including how a Marine screened by the military ended up preying on young women around the isolated base, how the lives of his victims and their families came to intertwine with his, how the desert geography contributed to the lives and crimes at issue, how the military’s war culture played its own role, and how the criminal justice system functioned and malfunctioned as the perpetrator’s sexual predations and homicides became apparent. As a reporter, Stillman does an excellent job ferreting out information about her main characters, many of them members of the underclass living lives of quiet desperation in an isolated locale. As a writer, however, Stillman is not nearly so successful. Stillman and her editor no doubt believed that they had devised the perfect structure to tell the intertwining stories. Yet “Twentynine Palms” violates chronology so badly and so seemingly without purpose most of the time that the book ends up a confusing mess. TOO MUCH INFORMATION That mess is aggravated by Stillman’s mindless use of detail. Many writers are guided by the axiom that God is in the details. But Stillman piles on the details so high that God is frequently hard to spot. The narrative is further compromised by Stillman’s attempts to write lyrical sentences. Sometimes those sentences work nicely. Much of the time, however, they seem forced and self-conscious. Despite the structural and stylistic shortcomings, “Twentynine Palms” might well be enjoyed by readers who thrive on true crime sagas with a strong sense of place. After all, one reason to read books is to learn about different people functioning in different cultures. The murderous Marine is endowed with a suitably macabre name for the part: Valentine Underwood. The victims, Mandi Scott and Rosalie Ortega, are young women who never had a chance to flower, who might have left Twentynine Palms far behind if given the chance, but who now will be associated with that place forever. In an author’s note, Stillman thanks the two dead women, whom she never knew, “for living such incredible and heroic lives amid a landscape of extreme emotional and social desolation.” Like so much else about this book, Stillman’s use of the word “heroic” seems off-key. “Sad” or “tragic” comes to mind instead. Steve Weinberg is a free-lance writer of investigative magazine pieces and books. He lives in Columbia, Mo.

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