Thursday, April 7, 2016

THE MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN :: Skip Hollandsworth

"As the journalists once wrote, it is a story worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, a rip-roaring, multilayered Gothic saga of madness and intrigue, panic and paranoia, beautiful women and baying bloodhounds, and flabbergasting plot twists and sensational courtroom drama."

Those words are from the Prologue to The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer, written by Skip Hollandsworth, award-winning executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine. The Prologue is about three pages long, and I was hooked to the gills by the time I finished it.

We all know about Jack the Ripper. But how many of us have heard about The Midnight Assassin, a killer who terrorized Austin, Texas four years before Jack got his start? I hadn't, which doesn't appear to be a rarity seeing as this spookily-monikered madman seems to have been left out of most Texas history books.

He will be unknown no more. In this astoundingly well-researched account, Hollandsworth takes us back to 1884-1888 Austin, a city on the verge of morphing from a small western town into a cosmopolitan destination location. The local police, politicians, and citizenry were terrified and flummoxed by a vicious and incredibly stealthy killer (killers?) and couldn't seem to do anything to stop him.

Hollandsworth first heard of the story in 1998, and he has been researching it on and off since that time. The journalist's attention to detail and investigative prowess are evident, as 1880s Austin and its people, politics, and crime are written into vibrant life.

The killer began his reign of terror in the black community, breaking into servants' quarters to bludgeon the occupant/s. Although men were often knocked out of commission, it was apparent women were the killer's targets. And, of course, black men were quick to be blamed, even on the odd occasion the attacker was described as white:

Surely, they said, the German girl, overcome with fright, had to have been mistaken about the skin color of the man she had seen. The string of attacks almost certainly had to be the work of blacks - "ruffians on the rampage," one man called them - who had retrograded.

Although the city was in general turmoil, it's not difficult to imagine how things ramped up as the Assassin's M.O. became more gruesome and, even more so, once a white woman was attacked. Indeed, although the story of the murder spree itself is riveting, the impact the Midnight Assassin had on local politics and race relations is an even more fascinating (and often equally terrifying) part of the story. Terrifying because it often felt like so little has changed since 1884:

As a result of such bias, young black men were constantly blamed for all sorts of crimes simply because they were young and black.

Was that line written about 1880s Texas or 2016 America?

The Midnight Assassin is a compelling look at the state of politics, policing, race relations (sorely lacking) and criminology (same) in the 1880s. The story was treated as one of the "great American murder mysteries of the late nineteenth century," and was front page news across the country. It was, perhaps, the first time in recorded history the country was faced with a serial killer. Which really makes it all the more strange this killer is not more well known.

As desperate as Austin was to put a stop to the murders, the efforts of the local police and politicians were almost a comedy of errors. I almost felt sorry for the mayor, who could not seem to make a right move to save his life, even when he tried to do the right thing. More often than not, however, he was caught up in the political ramifications of a killer in his midst as he was trying to bring prosperity to Austin (and save his own skin). He reminded me a bit of Mayor Vaughn from Jaws, desperate to save his city on the verge of its coming-out party, and to hell with the risks.

Who was the Midnight Assassin? Was he (her? them?) connected with Jack the Ripper? Hollandsworth does a fantastic job keeping the narrative flowing and bringing the crimes and location to life with incredible attention to detail. Though it reads with a bit more of a reporter's sensibility than a storyteller's, The Midnight Assassin is a tale well worth your time.

STREET SENSE:  Recommended for fans of true crime and/or crime fiction, serial killer sagas, investigative journalism, and American history. Hollandsworth's efforts at historic accuracy help make this a really stellar work. I realize I've said it more than once, but the level of research really did boggle my mind. The book also includes various photographs and documents Hollandsworth came across in his investigation, which were fun and interesting additions that helped with visualization even though the author's words were more than sufficient.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  It has taken me years to put the story together, looking for facts hidden away in faded newspaper articles and in old scrapbooks, in the crumbling pages of diaries and letters, in long-forgotten records boxed up in the back storage rooms of libraries and government offices, and in files at the state's former lunatic asylum, the one-imposing limestone fortress that loomed over the northern edge of Austin. Some details about the killings were discovered in abandoned sections of cemeteries, the tombstones nearly covered by time. Others were provided by grandchildren and great-grandchildren of residents involved in the Midnight Assassin's murder spree. And then there were records that should have been readily available but had curiously - tantalizingly - disappeared.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I will admit that it was the title that first caught my eye. What's not to pick up when you see "MIDNIGHT ASSASSIN" on the front? Nothing, I say. The cover art doesn't knock my socks off, but it definitely conveys, along with the title, a creepy air that I really like.  This cover did its job, and it was definitely a smart move to highlight the title.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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