In The Girl With the Crooked Nose, veteran author Ted Botha chronicles the improbable but real-life saga of Frank Bender, now 67, who unexpectedly rode a commercial photography career to a parallel career reconstructing faces of unidentified murder victims and long-gone fugitives. If any book fits the adage of truth seeming stranger than fiction, this is it.
Bender calls Philadelphia home, although his work with clay and other materials on behalf of law enforcement agencies has taken him to dozens of locales. Botha cuts between Philadelphia and Juarez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, across the border from El Paso, Texas, where Bender is trying to help police identify some of the girls and women, perhaps more than 400, murdered and left in the desert dating back to 1993.
In 1977, working with Philadelphia medical examiners, Bender had to force himself to become comfortable with the stench of death. Corpses appeared "naked, cold, and had odd expressions — sometimes fright or horror, but mostly nothing at all, as if the people had died right in the middle of doing something quite forgettable, like mowing the lawn."
Early successes gave Bender confidence to continue his new occupation and gave law enforcement agencies reason to seek him out. Perhaps the most publicized of Bender's successes involved fugitive John List, suspected in the 1981 murders of his wife, mother and three children in New Jersey. Eighteen years later, the television program America's Most Wanted sent a photograph of List to Bender, who created a bust of List as he might look in 1989. The television producers aired the image, a woman in Colorado reported it looked like her former neighbor, and List ended up in prison for life.
The gory details of Bender's work might induce a queasy stomach, but the narrative is worth following for fans of crime procedurals.
Steve Weinberg is author of "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller."