The mysteries of history—and the rash of bestselling novels they’ve spawned—inspire this slapstick satire that is more fun than the sum of its clichés.
While less literary than Steve Martin, comedian-actor-writer Elliott (star of TV’s Get a Life and the film Cabin Boy) offers more than the recycled monologue bits of most comedians-turned-authors. The patron saint of Elliott’s satiric sensibility here might well be Mel Brooks, for Elliott shows the same sort of gleeful relish in skewering the absurdities of the historical crime thriller genre that Brooks has in his big-screen parodies. After reading Elliott’s account of New York’s little-known 19th-century serial killer—Jack the Jolly Thwacker—it will be all the tougher to swallow the quasi-historical tone of The Historian, The Alienist, even The Da Vinci Code without gagging. Among those involved in the pursuit of Jolly Jack, who disembowels prostitutes after “thwacking” them, are a reporter named Liz Smith, a pre-presidential, genitally pierced and relentlessly flatulent Teddy Roosevelt and the time-traveling author himself. Along the way, they encounter the nefarious (and lisping) Boss Tweed, the mysterious Mummers and a marauding street gang of toddlers. The narrative leaps between present and past, with the author alternating between advancing the plot and addressing the reader, reinforcing his persona as a hapless buffoon in the process. The more convoluted the conspiracy surrounding the serial murders becomes, the more absurd the contrivances of this sort of historical fiction seem: According to 19th-century history as rewritten by Elliott, a history in which a calculating Yoko Ono and a perennially wrinkled Don Imus play roles, it was New York that actually sparked the Great Chicago Fire.
If those who devour such novels are willing to laugh at them, Elliott might be a bigger hit on bookshelves than he’s been onscreen.