There are very few nonfiction books I like to read, but true crime is always the exception. So, of course, when I found this beauty about the first American serial killer, one that occurred just before all the Jack the Ripper Killings—and had some people across the pond believing these fiends were the same perpetrator—sign me up! I was a little leery though, mainly because after reading “Devil in the White City” I was, frankly, a little disappointed. That book was mainly on the Chicago World’s Fair, not so much on Henry H. Holmes and how he committed his murders, or what really happened in his murder hotel. This book didn’t have THAT problem. Oh no! Hollandsworth scoured old newspaper reports, police statements, and death certificates and was able to present his readers with the utter brutality of this killer. Unfortunately, however, that was about all the author could give.
Like “The Devil in the White City”, “The Midnight Assassin” paints a lovely image of what it was like to be in Austin, Texas as it started growing into the major city it is today. We are presented with the idyllic hopes and dreams of the city, how safe people believed it to be, how perfect and picturesque. You are also presented with the knowledge that race relations aren’t all that different then as they are today when crimes are committed to people of color, and who the white law enforcement agents target first in those cases, as well as those when the victim is white. The author does a great job going through personal accounts of people who lived in Austin at the time to really present a snapshot of what it would have felt like to be walking through a growing city. It’s obvious the author is mainly a reporter, for the flair at which he writes, and the scintillating way he presents information is all incredibly entertaining, but that’s all it really was, entertaining. Because, unlike “Devil in the White City”, you never get to know who the murderer is, so the author has to embellish and make connections whenever he can to keep the “story” and the history wrapped together.
I did enjoy that the author did not shy away from presenting the brutality and the boldness of this particular killer. However, they merely presented the facts of what occurred. The newspaper reports and death records, he didn’t try to offer any kind of evidence or conjecture on the type of person who could have been responsible for these murders, didn’t bother to use any kind of research regarding what we now know, or have available today about serial killers and psychopaths thanks to all the research modern day detectives and the FBI make available. He doesn’t link to any evidence whatsoever, and instead presents EVERYTHING that had even the slightest connection to these horrific murders, which include several red herrings that ultimately led nowhere and had nothing to do with the crimes being committed. There are so many “characters” that it’s hard to keep track of the threads because the author wants to show you how dedicated he was to his research by including everything he found. Even with that, the book isn’t terribly long (the last 60 pages or so are all resource material), so the proportion of murder and who could have perpetuated the attacks is small in comparison to the, ultimately, useless intrigue around the acts themselves.
I was mostly entertained by this book, don’t get me wrong, and while it’s no secret at the start that the identity of the murderer is never known, I was hoping for more substance. I was expecting this to be more of an investigative journalistic experience rather than a pure account of what happened. I was desperately hoping there would be some conjecture, some relying on outside scientific evidence, or something! But there is just false lead after false lead that this book became a bit of a letdown at the end. It’s interesting history for sure, and the boldness of the killings—as well as the detail they are presented in—is unsettling, but all the connections presented between the initial robberies, the assaults, and then the murders, is very flimsy which makes it hard for me to believe that everything the author says is committed by the same person is actually accurate. I would still recommend this book for the history, and it is written in an engaging manner, but I can’t say I’m much the wiser, either, which puts this novel solidly in the 3 star camp for me.
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