Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Pierce’s Picks

A periodic alert for followers of crime and thriller fiction.

The byline on the cover of The Father (Quercus) reads “Anton Svensson,” but that’s only a collaborative pseudonym employed by screenwriter Stefan Thunberg (credited with contributions to the Swedish TV series Wallander as well as a succession of films based on Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels) and investigative journalist Anders Roslund. The latter, together with Börge Hellström, penned Box 21 and Three Seconds. But The Father—part one of a two-novel sequence called “Made in Sweden”—is really Thunberg’s story to tell, because it’s based on the history of his own bank-robbing family. The Father’s taught and tragic narrative alternates between the present-day, where we witness a trio of young criminal brothers—Leo, Felix, and Vincent—and their friend Jasper, plan and execute a string of increasingly daring heists; and flashbacks that spotlight the siblings’ wrathful and abusive father, Ivan, who imparted to them all of the hatred and brutality that had poisoned him during the Balkan civil wars. With their futures circumscribed by violence and a troubled Stockholm cop on their tails, the brothers must ultimately confront the parent who shaped (or misshaped) them.

Although I don’t usually choose non-fiction works as “Pierce’s Picks,” I’m going to make an exception in the case of The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer (Henry Holt). Penned by Skip Hollandsworth, the executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine, this is the sometimes-shocking but still thoroughly engrossing tale of what he calls “one of the great American murder mysteries of the late 19th century, a blood-curdling whodunit ….” Beginning in December 1884, and continuing for the next year, Hollandsworth explains, one or more villains crisscrossed the booming Texas capital of Austin, “striking on moonlit nights, using axes, knives, and long steel rods to rip apart women from every race and class.” Because the initial victims—attacked in their beds, some managing to escape with only minor injuries—were black female servants who worked for some of the city’s wealthiest white families, this elusive “madman” came to be known as the Servant Girl Annihilator. The scant witnesses there were to the attacks offered conflicting testimony about the marauder’s racial identity, yet Austin’s conservative white businessmen convinced themselves that responsibility lay with one or more black men. Sadly, they handed the task of catching said killer(s) to men little experienced in detective work; and local politicians shied away from hiring additional policemen, fearing that they’d suffer the wrath of voters if they raised taxes in order to pay for such safeguards. (It was a far better idea, some said, to simply encourage white residents to shoot any and all black strangers they thought might be intruding on their property.) The result was that, despite numerous arrests, the killer was never apprehended or even identified. There has even been speculation that whoever was behind the Austin murder spree also committed the Jack the Ripper killings in London three years later. Anyone who read Steven Saylor’s standalone mystery from 2000, A Twist at the End (which imagined short-story writer O. Henry—who actually lived in Austin in 1885 under his real name, William Sydney Porter—uncovering the truth behind the slayer’s identity), will be familiar with the basics of the Servant Girl Annihilator legend. But Hollandsworth wraps that historical framework in an abundance of detailed, colorful information about Austin life and residents of the time that adds welcome human dimension to the criminal horrors.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

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