And now for something completely American from the author of the highly successful tales of Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder (Rubicon, 1999, etc.): a ponderous tale based on a real-life Texas murder case.
In 1906, New York author O. Henry, né William Sydney Porter, is one of the best-known writers in the world. But he’s being blackmailed over a secret more than 20 years old—a secret going back even further than his embezzlement conviction in Austin. When a mysterious old man brings him a letter promising to identify the killer of a number of young women back in 1884 and 1885, the author agrees to accompany the emissary on a trip to Texas. Along the way, a series of long flashbacks recount the story of the Servant Girl Annihilators, as Will Porter himself had whimsically dubbed whoever killed the women beginning with mulatto housekeeper Mollie Smith. Interwoven with the story of these monstrous brutalities are several other strands: the halfhearted attempts by incompetent and corrupt authorities to stem what initially looks like a tide of sexual violence directed exclusively at women of color; the fate of the Female Clerks Bill, which provoked brief but lively discussion about the rights of women to enter the workplace; and the tale of Will’s hopeless infatuation with Eula Phillips, unhappily but incontrovertibly married to a well-born drunk. Saylor is so generous in presenting every detail of these (mostly factual) subplots that few of his characters get much chance to shine; even Will himself is upstaged by the miscreants who can be most broadly drawn. Worse, the account, despite the promise of its title, keeps few surprises in reserve.
A conscientious historical reconstruction that still packs less punch than any number of its literary hero’s own ten-page anecdotes.