A Twist at the End: A Novel of O’Henry
Jack the Ripper is arguably the most notorious serial killer of all time, fictional and non-fictional. And yet “The Servant Girl Annihilator” of Austin, Texas, predated the London killer by two years and was equally vicious in the way he took the lives of his victims. Blaring newspaper headlines, eight gruesome deaths, the real life mystery never solved — and the deeds are all but forgotten.
Saylor, known until now as the author of a series of detective mysteries taking place in ancient Rome, turns his attention in this book to the capital city of Texas, 1884 -1885. His hero is Will Porter, later to become world famous as short story writer O. Henry. This was before his disgrace (embezzlement) and his stay in prison, when life was easy and carefree — and infatuation (if not love) was wholly spontaneous and instinctive.
Years later, in 1906, Porter is enticed back to Texas from New York City, and memories come flooding back. With a little bit of ingenuity, Saylor suggests an ending to the mystery — not an O. Henry ending — as he prepares the way a little too well. The culprit(s) — at least the one(s) he hypothesizes — are suggested too strongly for the “twist at the end” to wholly hold true.
Which is not to say that it doesn’t feel exactly right. Life in that heated Texas summer of 20 years before is brought vividly to life, including that of the common people. The poor, the blacks, the drunkards and idlers. But also the leading politicians, many in their hypocritical glory; the lawmen, many in their vulgar, kneejerk hatred of blacks; the newspapermen, the madames of exclusive brothels (and otherwise); the servants of the rich, and the rich themselves. It’s a fascinating cast of characters, with many of the concerns of the day woven intimately throughout. For example: did you know that the Texas Senate of 1885 almost passed a law requiring an equal number of women as men to be hired as government clerks? It’s during the debate over this issue that Will Porter first meets his first love, and the events begin that eventually cause his downfall.
A word of caution: books about serial killers can scarcely avoid going into details, and while Saylor doesn’t dwell on them, and they’re not overly done, they are present — and not pleasant. The overall tone is at times profane and vulgar, and at others, light and lyrical. But mostly it’s a book to let yourself get swallowed up in, savor and enjoy.