Monday, April 25, 2016

The Midnight Assassin - Skip Hollandsworth

The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial KillerI adore crime shows.  Law and Order (the original one, with McCoy!) is amazing, and is Bones, and then, of course, there is the best of them all: Criminal Minds.  (NCIS and all of its spin-offs are terrible.  Do not talk to me about them.)  Criminal Minds focuses specifically on serial killers, a group of murderers which is both terrifying and fascinating.  Of course, in Criminal Minds they always get their man in the end, but in real life things aren't always so neat and tidy, especially in periods which pre-dated modern forensics.  The most famous historical serial killer is probably Jack the Ripper, but he wasn't the first person who sort of (and this is totally creepy to say but is true) revolutionized mass murder.  That honor appears to have gone to the Midnight Assassin, a serial killer who terrorized Austin, Texas starting in 1884 before up and vanishing.  This was four years before Jack the Ripper made his kills in London and about a decade before H. H. Holmes built his murder hotel to capitalize on the World's Fair in Chicago.  Unlike Holmes and like Jack the Ripper, the Midnight Assassin was never caught, despite killing at least seven people, and maybe a couple of more outside of Austin.

Skip Hollandsworth uses The Midnight Assassin to lay out the events of 1884 and 1885 that terrorized Austin.  Someone started breaking into the quarters of servant women and killing them with an axe, and then moved on to several more prominent members of the community.  Of course, it wasn't until well-to-do white women, instead of black servant women, started dying that anyone really took notice.  Racism was rampant in the day and Austin presumed that it had to be a black man, or maybe even a roving band of black men, who were behind the killings, even though at least one person said they thought the killer was white.  Two people were tried for two separate murders, despite there being little to no evidence that they were actually involved.  The whole thing was basically a debacle, with no one really having any idea of what was actually going on.  In fact, no one was ever actually caught, and when Jack the Ripper began killing women in London people thought that it might be the Austin killer, relocated to England.  This theory doesn't hold much water in modern times because the Austin killer and Jack the Ripper had very different styles, which is (and I can tell you this as a super-experienced watcher of Criminal Minds) pretty indicative that they weren't the same person.  Serial killers, we all know, tend to use the same method over and over again.

What's sort of weird with that book is that Hollandsworth lays out a bunch of false trails that I kept thinking were going to evolve into a theory about who the killer actually was, but they never did.  For example, the bits about the insane asylum seemed like they were going to result in one of the patients there at least being accused of the murders, even if they turned out to be innocent, but that never actually happened.  Consequently, I was left perplexed as to why such emphasis was placed on the asylum and its staff and inhabitants in the first place.  It seemed liked Hollandsworth wanted to tell this story, but there really wasn't enough source material to bulk out a cohesive theory, so he settled for just including random other happenings around Austin, like the asylum and the recounting of lots of parties.  The elections, at least, tied in to the story, because the scandal of the murders impacted them in a huge way.

Ultimately, though, this is an unsatisfying book because there's no theory.  Hollandsworth mentions at the end that he's still hoping more evidence will arise that might point to who the killer was, but I would have liked to see him take a stab at "solving" the case anyway and at least trying to support any idea he might have had.  As it was, the book ended on a "Yeah, we just can't know" note, which was kind of annoying because it meant the book was basically an expanded version of the Wikipedia page on the killings, without any substantive thought added into it.  Compared to the last book I read about a serial killer, Eric Larson's Devil the White City, The Midnight Assassin just ended up falling flat.

3 stars out of 5; a fascinating series of events, but nothing to elevate the book as a whole to another level.

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