Friday, October 14, 2016

Nonfiction: The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth

My interest in The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer by Skip Hollandsworth comes mostly from the book's setting of my hometown, Austin, Texas. In the late 1800s, the capital of the Lone Star State was the city where several mysterious and brutal killings took place, and Hollandsworth takes an in-depth look at something few people, including many residents of Texas, know much about. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction/true crime book that covers an extremely terrifying time in Austin, Texas. In December of 1884, Austin is not quite the beacon of live music, arts, culture, business, and technology that it is today. In fact, it recently became the capital of the then largest state in the union, after the title was moved from Houston. In the 1880s, Austin was still a small town boasting only 17,000 residents when a young man by the name of Tom Chalmers was awakened by the frantic knocking of Walter Spencer. Spencer, an African American brick yard laborer in his late twenties, claimed that someone has tried to kill him, and has taken his girlfriend, Mollie Smith. As Chalmers was not at all willing to go out into the cold to look for Spencer's girlfriend, he ushered the frantic man out of his house and went back to bed. In the morning, Smith would be found with terrible axe wounds. Hollandsworth describes the body as looking as if Smith had been "ripped open like a calf at the slaughterhouse." For the next year or so, Austin would be seized in terror has six more people will end up murdered in similar ways. Another murder will take place in San Antonio, and yet two more in Gainesville. At first it appears that only black servant women are targeted, but then two of Austin's well-respected white women are also axed down, leading to a different kind of fear, as well as some secrets about both women, and their families, being exposed to the Austin public. And much like the early targets were black, so were most of the suspects, as most of Austin white citizens refused to believe that it could be anyone other than a black man who could do such a thing. Hollandsworth points out how the inherent racism of the time led white officials to routinely round up black suspects and "interrogate" them, though none ever confessed and there was never enough evidence to hold them. In fact, there was never enough evidence to hold anyone, since DNA testing and checking for finger prints weren't really a thing in the 19th century. The city would go through cycles of being gripped by terror, then feeling more comfortable as time passed without incident, only to be gripped by terror again after letting their guard down. Eventually the murders would stop, and Austin would move forward again.

My Verdict: I don't read much true crime, although I do enjoy it, and The Midnight Assassin is no exception. And having it set in my hometown naturally makes the whole thing even more interesting. Seeing old photos of the now bustling city is indeed fascinating, but seeing the photos next to descriptions of how a serial killer attacked his victims and seemed to vanish into the night makes for a different experience altogether. Some of the descriptions are gory in their details, and there are times when reading about the investigations and even the criminal trials are frustrating, especially knowing all that we know today about forensics and crime scene analysis. Something else that proved interesting is reading how elected officials that many Texans learned about in school handled the murders, especially when it became election time and the issue couldn't be ignored. Hollandsworth gives just enough detail without bogging down the narrative, but doesn't hold anything back. And the pacing of the book works well to keep the reader interested, even during the stretches of time between the killings.

Favorite Moment: When the then mayor of Austin, John Robertson, mistakenly hires men from the wrong detective agency, and must cover up his mistake of spending taxpayer money on the wrong people.

Recommended Reading: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is commonly referred to as the book that started the whole true crime genre. It may not deal with a serial killer, but the murders are still gruesome and take place in small quiet town hat had never encountered anything like it before.        

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