Austin, Texas, 1885. Manhattan, 1906. Twenty-year-old ghosts haunt Will Porter, a.k.a. famous writer O. Henry, who may have changed names and cities but hasn't outrun the memory of a series of murders that cast a chilling shadow over a sunny and bustling town. In A Twist at the End
, Steven Saylor, author of the Roma Sub Rosa mystery series (Rubicon
, The House of the Vestals
, A Murder on the Appian Way
, The Venus Throw
), riffs on reality: brutal and sadistic, the "Servant Girl Annihilator" killed seven Austin women in 1885, but the murders were never solved. Saylor weaves together murder mystery and love story, historical exploration and fictional creation, combining careful research with artistic license to hazard a potential solution to the now-obscure mystery.
Will is summoned back to Austin by a mysterious stranger bearing a letter whose author claims to have discovered the perpetrator of the hideous crimes; Saylor cleverly frames the story as a series of flashbacks during Will's trip to Texas. The sense of the train moving both forward, west toward Austin, and backward, deep into the past, accelerates the story itself, creating a foreboding sense of portent. Will himself is an engaging protagonist: "He considered himself to be fairly well-rounded, for a self-educated fellow. He could throw a lariat, quote from Idylls of the King, and grow an exceedingly fine moustache. Despite this résumé, once in Austin he had encountered some difficulties in earning a livelihood." His youth and naiveté are compelling counterpoints to the gritty boisterousness of the capital city, which Saylor evokes with careful precision.
Saylor has a light touch with historical irony. All too often, writers wrestle unsuccessfully with the temptation to have their characters make claims that we know, with all the wisdom of hindsight, will be disproved. The trick is to do this without making readers feel they've been poked sharply in the ribs (Do you get it? Do you get it?), and Saylor exhibits the commendable talent of grounding his characters' thoughts and observations in their historical context; they never seem forced or sly.
Unfortunately, the urge toward verisimilitude carries its own risks. Too often, Saylor will weave an item of historical record into his narrative--the so-called Female Clerks bill, for example--then seem oddly compelled to dispose of it; he brusquely states its actual outcome and drops it forevermore. The reader has the impression of a file drawer sliding shut (perhaps the one labeled "Historical Atmosphere"). Such moments, though they testify to Saylor's familiarity with Texas history, rupture the flow of the narrative.
The opening of the novel is so successful--with its O. Henry-esque twist that leaves readers ruefully shaking their heads, realizing too late the author's trickery--that one expects great things from the conclusion. Sadly, Saylor falls short of his own inspiration; the dénouement may be logical, but it certainly is neither startling nor ironic, and what, after all, is an O. Henry story without irony? --Kelly Flynn
From Publishers Weekly
Based on the scandal-ridden life of short story master O. Henry and a string of gruesome murders committed in 1885 Austin, Tex., this captivating historical romance noir should be heralded as a breakout for the seasoned author of Rubicon (one of seven mysteries in his popular Roma Sub Rosa series). The intricately structured narrative opens in New York in 1906, when William Sydney Porter, now in his mid-40s and enjoying fame under the nom de plume O. Henry, is being blackmailed by the wife of a wealthy Wall Street broker who threatens to expose his secret past: the writer once served hard time as a convicted embezzler. Porter also encounters a Dr. Kringel, who bears a letter and a train ticket from the celebrated physician, Dr. Edmund Montgomery, and his wife, noted sculptress Elisabet Ney, inviting Porter to return to their plantation near Austin to learn the truth about a 20-year-old series of unsolved murders. Deftly shifting back and forth between 1906 and 1885, the novel describes Porter's life as a likable 25-year-old free spirit who--working odd jobs and hanging out with Dave Shoemaker, a young crime reporter on the Austin Statesman--gets caught up in an unsatisfactory affair with a young married woman. Porter then recalls his unwitting connection to a series of brutal axe murders of seven young women who were sexually ravaged after their deaths. A hard look at racial bigotry and politico-economic deceit in post-Civil War Texas, this well-researched, capably written novel functions not only as cracking good historical entertainment, but also as an effective morality play. Agent, Alan Nevins. (Apr.)
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