Steven Saylor's Austin Murder Mystery, A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry
To get from ancient Rome to Austin, Texas, 1885, Steven Saylor had to experience something that most people call coincidence. He calls it serendipity. It was the summer of 1992, and he was working on Arms of Nemesis, the third installment in his successful Roma Sub Rosa mystery series set in ancient Rome. It rained a lot that summer and he couldn't go swimming and he couldn't use his bike; he didn't go out much at all. He started leafing through Austin: An Illustrated History, and he just happened to come across this tidbit of fact under the heading "Highlights of the Austin Story":
CHRISTMAS DAY, 1885: Austinites awake to discover two more women butchered to death, ending a series of nighttime murders in which eight victims, seven of them females, were viciously attacked and killed. The murders are never solved.
And that was all it said. And it gave him pause and it made him think: What? He was surprised that he hadn't heard of the murders since he loves history so much and he loves Austin so much, and he was just very surprised to find these bizarre murders alluded to in that coffeetable book as if everyone had known about them. So, because he is an inveterate researcher, he headed down to the Austin History Center and went through all that microfiche of The Daily Statesman and started making copy after copy after copy of everything he could find, like this urgent revelation from New Year's Day, 1885:
A FEARFUL MIDNIGHT MURDER ON
WEST PECAN -- MYSTERY AND CRIME.
A Colored Woman Killed Outright,
and Her Lover Almost Done For.
No Clue to the Perpetrator of the Blood Deed -- Details of the Crime.
In the very early hours of yesterday morning, there occurred in the city one of the most horrible murders that ever a reporter was called upon to chronicle -- a deed almost unparalleled in the atrocity of its execution ...
That was the first one. The visceral shock of the murder -- he used an ax, then raped and left her, Mollie Smith, a cook and servant, nearly naked "wedged in the narrow, weedy strip between the outhouse and the back fence" according to Saylor's reconstruction -- eventually wore off. It wasn't until May 6 that the next one occurred. The thinking at the time suggested that the murderer must have been a jilted boyfriend. The ineffectual chief of the police force came to investigate but some good that did: All he did was arrest a black man he assumed was jealous of the attention Mollie gave her boyfriend Walter Spencer.
Saylor speaks about writing A Twist at the End as a "homecoming." "It's hard to explain what Austin means to me and the fact that I had to come back over and over and over and now I have to own a little property there so I can come back when I want," he says, and it's no wonder. In 1962, in tiny Goldthwaite, Texas, Steven Saylor is an astute six-year-old boy who has just ordered entire Roman armies and a battery-operated Roman galley from the Sears catalog. But no one thinks that is strange or even a harbinger of things to come because it's the iconography of the time (Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra) and little children everywhere are playing with plastic Romans. He's lucky: He grows up in a world that encourages his imagination; it seems only natural to form battle plans for your Roman army. And then, of course, he grows up and leaves those things behind, but when he heads to Austin to the University of Texas, he thinks he wants to become an advertising major (for some strange reason, he now says). When it comes time to fulfill his obligatory history requirement, he suddenly realizes that if he can get away with "studying" history for four years, college will be his playground.
"I wanted to write this book about old Austin and not modern Austin," he says. "I don't know what the historical thing is, to sort of make the claim on a particular little niche of Austin history. Then in the research I suddenly realized that I don't know a thing about Austin in the 1880s ... and it's amazing just how totally lost it is. People have no idea what came immediately before them and how much is back there." But everyone knows that if you're going to write a book about murders that happened more than 100 years ago, you can't just reconstitute the murders; you have to put them in their place. Saylor quickly learned that "for a very long period there, cocaine and prostitution and gambling -- everything -- was available" in Austin. But to get "everything about 1885 Austin in one place," as he intended, Saylor read the newspaper, consulted the railroad timetables, visited the O. Henry Museum and the Elisabet Ney Museum, and read Reports of Cases Argued and Adjudged in the Court of Appeals of Texas, Volume XXII (1887). He walked the downtown streets, studied Augustus Koch's 1887 bird's-eye view map of Austin, and consulted the Texas State Archives to get to the bottom of the curious Senate Bill No. 79, an affirmative action bill for women. All of which ignited his imagination. William Sydney Porter -- later to become O. Henry -- is Saylor's young layabout absorbing the scene and making puns when he feels like it. He calls the murderer(s) the "Servant Girl Annihilators," which is accurate enough until white housewives become victims. He is close friends with Dave Shoemaker, the Statesman's crime reporter, who grew up in Hempstead, Texas, borrowing books from famed, exotic sculptor Elisabet Ney and her philosopher husband Dr. Edmund Montgomery when they lived there at their plantation, Liendo. Eventually, Porter meets Eula Phillips, a crucial player, and falls in love with her, but he is never Saylor's sleuth. He's anything but. "Because of precisely when this takes place," Saylor says, "it's kind of before everything we know about detection, serial crime ... because this predates Sherlock Holmes, it predates Jack the Ripper, so this is before people even have the idea of the sleuth who can just solve any crime by using his mind. ... These people are kind of adrift when these murders start. They really don't have any links or any clues or any precedents to work from."
"I remember first encountering O. Henry," Saylor recalls, "in this old weather-beaten book of his entire works in a single volume when I was a kid and it was probably in an attic or a trunk." It was his grandparents' book. "And I remember looking through it and seeing his original Austin stories, that he wrote when he was in Austin ... and being really intrigued by that. I had no idea that there was this writer who had lived in Austin in his early life. To me there's something mythic about it."
Steven Saylor will be at the O. Henry Museum (409 E. Fifth) onThursday, April 13 at 7pm to read from and sign A Twist at the End.Waterloo Brewing Co. will be serving their O. Henry's Porter, Guy Town I.P.A., and Clara's Clara, as well as food and non-alcoholic beverages. Open and free to the public. Sponsored by Barnes & Noble and the O. Henry Museum.