Book Review: “Long Mile Home” — An Informative View of the Boston Marathon Bombings That Lacks Investigative Muscle

A fast-paced, fact-laden book by two “Boston Globe” reporters about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings that doesn’t answer the tough questions.

Long Mile Home: Boston Under Attack, the City’s Courageous Recovery, and the Epic Hunt for Justice, by Scot Helman and Jenna Russell. Dutton, 337 pp., $27.95


By Jay Atkinson

Shortly before 10 a.m on April 15, 2013, Dr. David King, a trauma surgeon and accomplished runner, waited near the starting line of the 117th Boston Marathon. Anticipating the starter’s pistol, King and hundreds of other participants activated the GPS on their watches — “the chirps from their gadgets filling the air as if they stood in a summer meadow full of crickets.”

Hours later, after two bombs had exploded near the finish line of the marathon, scattering deadly shrapnel, setting off widespread panic, and killing three bystanders, longtime race organizer Dave McGillivray helped gather hundreds of bags containing runners’ personal items that had been left behind. He could hear cellphones ringing inside the yellow race bags, as family members and friends tried to reach their loved ones. Still in shock over what he’d witnessed, McGillivray “listened to the phones singing in the darkness, a melancholy sound track to (his) solemn labor.”

This is one of several eerie juxtapositions in Boston Globe reporters Scott Helman and Jenna Russell’s fast-paced, fact laden book about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. In the aftermath, sirens rang out from every quarter and police launched a protracted and costly hunt to identify and capture the two suspects, 27-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar. This version of the story includes a raft of surprising details, including the “swarms of … rodents” that infested downtown businesses that were cordoned off for safety reasons; the day, months later, that Boston police officer Shana Cottone, one of many first responders who struggled with her memories of the event, discovered an unexploded (and unrelated) bomb in East Boston; and the first sign of normalcy after an anxious week, as panhandlers returned to Boylston Street.

The authors focus on the tragedy from the perspectives of King, McGillivray, Cottone, spectator Heather Abbott, and victim Krystle Campbell. In such a huge, tangled story, the choice of subjects becomes your organizing principle; therefore, you must choose wisely and employ your shifting point of view strategically. Ideally, there should be a structural purpose to these visitations and re-visitations, though oftentimes here the drop-ins on these characters can seem random: oh, it’s time to mention Dr. King again. The authors also have trouble building the tension necessary to propel the arc of their story, and then, ironically, they skim over the most important event: the bombing itself. No detailed narrative rendering of the actual explosions appears in the book, which is either a significant oversight or an editorial misstep.

There’s another serious problem of omission in Long Mile Home. Throughout Helman and Russell’s reporting, there’s a whiff of indecisiveness when it comes to their evaluation of critical judgment calls by law enforcement — the latter undoubtedly triggered by the inter-agency competition and jealousy that has long haunted Boston. For example, they describe what occurred when the Tsarnaev brothers were spotted by an alert Watertown cop just a short time after executing MIT police officer Sean Collier, taking a hostage, and hijacking the man’s car. The patrol officer radioed his supervisor and, within minutes, dozens of cops from across the region barreled into Watertown. What ensued has been described by some as an ill-advised, nightmarish crossfire where more than 250 rounds were exchanged; Tamerlan Tsarnaev was shot multiple times and then run over by his fleeing brother; and 33-year-old MBTA police officer Richard Donohue was grievously wounded, most likely by an errant round fired by another cop. The authors imply — though never state — that the chaos was the result of poor decisions (or the lack of them) by law enforcement supervisors at the scene.

In fact, many key questions are left unexamined here. What did the federal government know about the Tsarnaevs before the attack, and whom did they tell? Which law enforcement agency had jurisdiction, and which department/individual should’ve taken charge of the firefight in Watertown that left Tamerlan Tsarnaev dead and an MBTA cop fighting for his life? What agency and which supervisor had the ultimate authority when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was discovered hiding in a boat, and where police endangered one another and local residents by opening fire without an express command to do so?

By all accounts, rank and file cops were enterprising, professional, and vigilant throughout this ordeal. But if supervisory errors were made, the authors have a obligation to investigate them in order to get the story right. In a town like Boston, where reporters often encounter the people they’ve written about, it is not easy to venture into the dark corners of the story, especially a complex tragedy like the Marathon bombing. Answering the tough questions will be left to other authors, and to the additional books on this subject that are sure to follow.

Jay Atkinson is the author of seven books, including Legends of Winter Hill: Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective. Follow him on Twitter@atkinson_jay


  1. Evan on April 28, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    I was living in the Bronx in 2001 and Boston in 2013. Both attacks, 9/11 and last year’s marathon, lead a devastated people to wanting answers and rightfully so. Answers to the questions of “who, why, and how” much like those Atkinson delves into in the latter part of his critique above. All over Boston we see signs for BOSTON STRONG–and that’s beautiful, I’m not taking from those, but it leaves me questioning whether this whole Marathon Bombing of 2013 is gearing towards being a branding image of Boston more so than a tragic day in history.

    I’m 22 which means in 2001 I was in elementary school, but I remember the aftermath of 9/11 and once the city reopened it didn’t let itself skip a beat. We all know Sinatra’s dubbing of New York as a city that never sleeps–New York won by not changing and not losing their jive. Last year Boston has taken by tragedy and stood strong through it.

    But where are the answers? When do we get to know how and why this all happened? ‘BOSTON STRONG’ is a beautiful thing and I’m not for a second taking from the magical ways that the city unified and stood strong, but in a year the Boston Bombing has become a brand for people who need something to write and advertise on. I think Atkinson is very right with regards to what a book like this would need to actually grip what hasn’t been handled before. Anyone can write about what happened last year–it was a tragedy and affected every single person in this city in their own way, and each way deserves to be heard. But if a book like this with a title as is, get dirty and answer the questions that will put a mind at ease. The ones that haven’t been answered yet. While there are unanswered questions floating around 9/11 a decade and a half later, they are questions that have been asked and investigated. Let’s see the same thing here. Because no matter how strong the city is, there’s only so much we can do when we don’t know what it is we’re looking to prevent. And Ortiz has already used up all his English on last year’s speech so that’s one floaty that we’ll be missing if God forbid this ever happened again.

  2. Joe McCain on April 28, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    As a Somerville Police Sergeant for the past 25 years, a personal friend of Mr. Atkinson and the survivor of a deadly on the job shootout where my partner nearly lost his life and the young man responsible for it did lose his, I have been giving Jay’s comments a great deal of thought. Although I cannot speak to the literary structure of the book nor can I speak to the alleged editorial missteps in its creation, I can speak about several things he said in his review.

    I agree that interagency jealousy exists between federal, state and local law enforcement officials. I do not agree that those petty jealousies had anything to do with what happened during the shootout on the streets of Watertown. I will qualify that by saying I was not there nor do I know very much about the particulars of it. I am only speaking generically when I say that if that had occurred in Somerville instead of Watertown and the Tsarnaev brothers had been pursued by several outside agencies resulting in them being cornered in a residential neighborhood in my city, it would not have mattered what patch the guy in blue next to me was wearing that evening. Whether it was State, Cambridge, Arlington or Medford, which has been the case on many occasions, we would have worked together to capture them before they broke into someone’s home and took them hostage or hurt anyone else, that would have been our sole focus.

    Would I have taken charge of that scene? I’m not sure if “take charge” is the correct term in that chaotic situation. I can envision telling one group of officers to “go around that way” and “we’ll take this side”, also “lets not shoot each other, watch your line of fire”, but other than that, I imagine we would have together, as a team, run headlong in the direction the Tsarnaev brothers were fleeing, while trying to avoid being hit by the hail of bullets and bombs that were being fired in our direction, just as the officers who were there did that evening.

    The ability of a supervisor under those hopefully once in a lifetime conditions, to control what was happening would have been limited at best. The supervisors, as boots on the ground beside their fellow officers that night were busy trying to get the bad guys, simple as that. The officers on the street were not thinking about who was going to get the credit, they were trying to stay alive, get the job done, stop the threat and go home to their families. I can speak to that from experience.

    That being said, make no mistake about it, and I think Jay will agree with me, when the “BRASS” from the federal, state and local authorities were roused from their warm beds and arrived on scene cup of coffee in hand, certainly they would be concerned about the well-being of their officers, but after that initial impulse, who was going to get credit for taking down the Tsarnaev brothers was the only other thing they were concerned about. I do not believe that the chaos that evening was caused by poor decisions made or not made by supervisors on scene. The chaos that evening was caused by the Tsarnaev brothers and them alone.

    I hope that this book and others like it, as well as Jay’s comments, change the focus from what happened that night last year to what we need to do now. If they simply create opportunities for our elected officials and the so-called law enforcement “experts” to lecture us about what we should do now or how they would have done a better job, (as neither group were there that evening nor in all probability have any of them come under fire like the officers in Watertown), that will be unfortunate. If they speak from experience, I will gladly take their input, if not, stick with what you know. Our goal should be to learn how to best handle these terrible situations. Our elected officials should provide us with the funds for more training and better equipment.

  3. Yumi on April 28, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    Atkinson’s critique of Long Mile Home raises important questions about exercising journalistic muscle about a widely chaotic and important event in recent history. As a journalist and a former Bostonian that has interacted closely with the police force, my instinct too was to inquire why the book didn’t give more attention to the bombing itself. This is why the Boston Globe’s decision to kill his review for the Sunday Globe, is somewhat puzzling and frankly, a little frustrating.

    Authors Scott Helman and Jenna Russell—veteran Boston Globe Metro/Regional reporters—do a fine job injecting narrative into the otherwise convoluted string of events that was the Boston Marathon bombings, according to Sean Flynn whose review ended up in the review section instead. Flynn writes, “It is perhaps not the definitive story of why two brothers blew up a marathon, if only because there are still too many unknowns…and a year simply isn’t enough time to write that version anyway.”

    The intrepid Susan Zalkind reported an incredible investigative piece in March about a mysterious, unreported and hither-to-unknown FBI’s involvement in a murder case linked to Tamerlan Tsarnaev. She attempts to get answers from the FBI about why Ibragim Todashev, a man living in Florida who was loosely connected to Tsarnaev, was shot seven times in his living room by a federal agent. Zalkind, in her tenacity, even puts her sources in danger and has one of them deported in order to get answers. The story delves deep into the opaque world of federal investigations and interrogation. Her packed report was the labor of just six months.

    Flynn also lauds Helman and Russell, and writes that their journalistic pedigrees and “the resources available to them” allowed for such a comprehensive work to be written. It is no excuse then, for the authors not to have flexed more on the law enforcement story.

    Atkinson recognizes that different books have different scopes. He also recognizes the difficulty of penetrating “into the dark corners” of such a story fraught with political obstacles. But his critique of Long Mile Home is justified: if the Globe is presenting it as a flagship book that chronicles the tragic event last year, distillation and organizing the chaos into a comprehensive narrative is not enough. A Spanish teacher of mine once said those uninterested in improvement reject criticism. My only hope is that the Globe is a news organization that also recognizes the merit of constructive criticism.

  4. Stray on April 30, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    Out of curiosity, I read the review on Long Mile Home in the Boston Globe by Sean Flynn. To me, it sounded like an “A For Effort Guys” type review in how it highlighted the arduous task of writing an Anniversary book only one year after the bombings happened. And that in itself is a huge task to undertake and complete, I’ll admit that. But Flynn’s Boston Globe review seems nothing more than a lighter version of Atkinson’s critiques spun in a more favorable light of the book written by two Boston Globe reporters, Helman and Russell.

    The two reviews seemed to be saying the same thing with the only difference being what each writer focused on: Flynn on the reporters who had the resource of a Pulitzer Awarding winning newsroom (and they still failed to incorporate some of the hard questions) and Atkinson on the actual content of the book.

  5. Jay Atkinson on May 1, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    Several weeks after reading Long Mile Home, the book itself and what happened to my review continue to interest me. An editor at the Boston Globe sent me Long Mile Home after I turned down another book about the marathon bombing. In the first instance, I felt there was a conflict of interest because the writer and I share the same literary agent in New York (though we don’t know each other and have never met). In reviewing books, I try to be as objective and fair as possible. It’s my job to tell readers what I think of the book and why, and if I have a dog in the fight, as it were, that task is compromised. I knew that Long Mile Home was a “Globe book,” you might say, as the Boston Globe’s literary agents sold the book to the publisher; two Globe reporters wrote it; a host of other Globe staffers are thanked for their contributions in the Acknowledgements; and the paper was running full-page ads for the book. All those factors are not commonplace, at least in my experience. I knew right away this book was different.

    Still, I have reviewed many books for the Globe and figured that I was assigned the book because of my reputation as an independent-minded reader and writer. While I was reading Long Mile Home and taking notes, my heart sank a little bit when I saw what I believed were major flaws in the book’s structure, reporting, and storytelling. (Most of this was in the review, though I didn’t mention every problem I saw in the narrative, just the major ones.) So when the editor got back to me and said that the first half of the review was fine, but the rest was out of “balance,” I was not surprised. As always, I offered to take notes from the editor and work through a revision. In twenty years of writing for the paper, I have never had a story or essay “killed” by an editor there.

    There’s a first time for everything. I never received any notes on my original draft, and after being chided for not returning several calls from the editor (all of these calls were made on the day after I agreed to tackle a revision upon receiving notes from the editor; I had other matters to attend to, and we’d talked about my review at length the day before.) The review was “killed” and I was paid a portion of the agreed upon fee and that was that.

    I can’t say for certain why the Globe never published my review. But the circumstances seem to point in a particular direction. It’s clear that Long Mile Home was a significant project within the newspaper and perhaps even representative of the Globe’s “brand.” Of course, none of that matters to me as a reviewer, nor should it. Hire me for my opinion, and after careful consideration I will render that opinion.

    Just to give one example of problems I saw in the book: within weeks of the bombings I was hearing from law enforcement sources who were present during the tumultuous events in Watertown that there were problems with leadership during the crisis that night. While I was reading Long Mile Home, I couldn’t help wonder why, if I was hearing about these errors and asking questions about what happened, why weren’t the two authors asking those same questions and including that material in the book? With all those resources at their disposal and several months dedicated to researching and writing a book on the topic, how could they miss such a huge part of the story?

    I still don’t know, but I find it interesting to think about.

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