A Twist at the End: A Novel of O. Henry
In an artful blending of history, literature, and vivid imagination, author Steven Saylor has crafted a novel that, much as Caleb Carr’s bestselling “The Alienist,” combines real characters and true crime into a story that is an engrossing work of fiction.
The city of Austin, Texas, “is fearfully dull,” wrote young Will Porter to a friend in the spring of 1885, “except for the frequent raids of the Servant Girl Annihilators, who make things lively in the dead of night.”
Years later, Will Porter would become famous as O. Henry, the toast of New York and the most celebrated writer in America. The long-ago Texas killings, which he dubbed the work of the Servant Girl Annihilators — perhaps the first recorded serial murders in America — would remain unsolved. But the appearance of a merciless blackmailer and a mysterious stranger would draw Porter back into the past, and back to Texas, to confront the stunning solution to those murders — and the secrets of his own soul.
When he was a young man in Austin in that spring of 1885, Porter fell in love. Her name was Eula Phillips. She was beautiful. She was married to someone else. And she was doomed to be a victim of the Servant Girl Annihilators.
The first victims were young Black women who worked in the households of Austin’s most prominent citizens. The crimes were unspeakable. The authorities were baffled. The murders continued, month after month, until suddenly, shockingly, the pattern changed. On a bloody Christmas Eve, two women — neither of them Black and neither of them servants — were horribly murdered, seemingly by the same vicious stalker. One of them was Eula Phillips. Her death was to be a defining event inthe life of the young man who would one day become O. Henry. The trial that resulted — uncovering one explosive scandal after another — would tear the city of Austin apart.
The capitol of Texas was a city in uneasy transition. Only a few years earlier, outlaw gangs and Comanche Indians had roamed the hills where now stood the homes of cattle barons and university professors. The animosities of the Civil War still lingered, and the struggle of Blacks for equality was just beginning. By day, politicians in the state legislature debated equal rights for women; by night, those same politicians mingled with the high-class prostitutes of Guy Town, the city’s notorious vice district. Southern traditions of manners and decorum concealed ugly secrets, all of which would be revealed before the saga of the Servant Girl Annihilators reached its end.
Against this remarkably rich background, Steven Saylor, author of the acclaimed “Roma Sub Rosa” series, has crafted a novel that melds fact with fiction, employing characters both real and imagined. The crimes and trials described in “A Twist at the End” actually happened. In real life, no satisfactory resolution was reached. But in the course of investigating the crimes, Saylor has come up with his own startling conclusion to a riveting, century-old mystery.
The result is a masterful novel of intrigue and murder, yet at the same time a romance of time and place, with a colorful cast of memorable characters brought vividly to life. It’s a true tale of Texas, grand in both setting and scope.
“It’s all fascinating and provocative…” The New York Times