If the family you spent this past Christmas with was the Averys of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, you're not alone. America is obsessed with true crime tales of late, thanks in part to the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, which follows accused members of that Midwestern clan, as well as HBO's miniseries The Jinx and the podcast Serial. True crimes are also often the inspiration for our most sensationalized dramas, like FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
But long before true crime invaded living rooms, it was a staple of the publishing industry, and it's still one of its most popular genres. Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, about the murder of more than 20 women at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, has spent over 320 weeks on the New York Times' nonfiction bestseller list (with a Martin Scorsese–directed film version in production starring Leonardo DiCaprio). This spring brings two new worthy entries that should stand among the genre's greats: The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer, by Skip Hollandsworth, and Alligator Candy, by David Kushner.
Hollandsworth, the executive editor of Texas Monthly, has prior crime-writing experience, including reporting on the murder that became the basis for the 2011 Richard Linklater film Bernie (which Hollandsworth co-wrote); The Midnight Assassin evolved from his magazine piece on an unsolved and largely forgotten 19th-century case. Beginning in December 1884, Austin was terrorized for more than a year by the grisly murders of several female servants and two housewives; all told, eight people were killed and at least eight more wounded. Victims were attacked with an ax while they slept, dragged outside, and then mutilated. Newspapers gave the mysterious killer nicknames like "the Midnight Assassin" and "the Intangible Nemesis," while one writer dubbed him the more punk-rock-sounding "Servant Girl Annihilator."
Today the serial killer is perhaps the most infamous criminal archetype, but in the 19th century that term didn't yet exist. "What no one in that era had ever heard about," writes Hollandsworth, "was an anonymous killer who set out to mutilate women, one after another, in almost ritualistic fashion in order to satisfy some depraved libidinous craving." Even the most gruesomely imaginative fiction writers had yet to create such a character: In Edgar Allen Poe's 1841 short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the killer wasn't a deranged man but an escaped orangutan. The Midnight Assassin's crimes were "not just a different form of murder," writes Hollandsworth, but "a different form of thinking."
What makes The Midnight Assassin every bit as addictive as Making a Murderer is that Hollandsworth perfectly captures the terror that gripped Austin, then a quaint city of 17,000. Newspapers recommended that parents keep daughters from attending the University of Texas. Citizens bought electric burglar alarms, stocked up on ammo, and women armed themselves with "boob guns" — small derringers easily stashed in corsets. Some residents demanded that the entire city be lit at night with incandescent lamps; in the end, 10 years later, they got them, which became Austin's famed "moonlight towers."
The identity of the killer was never determined. In 1888, when a series of similarly gruesome disembowelments began occurring in London's East End, 4,295 miles away, many people believed that the horrifying handiwork was being performed by the same fiend. But Jack the Ripper's murders — at least five, maybe as many as 11 — proved far more infamous, inspiring countless fictional adaptations, while Austin's killer was left out of the history books until now.
The Austin atrocities were, as Hollandsworth puts it, "a freakish foretaste of what was to come in American life" — both in real-world crimes and in our seemingly endless consumption of their re-creations. But an oft-ignored element of the stories is the shattered families left behind in the wake of violence. David Kushner's bracingly poignant Alligator Candy is a haunting exploration of this point of view. One morning in October 1973, four-year-old Kushner watched as his 11-year-old brother, Jon, pedaled off through the woods to the local 7-Eleven, ostensibly to buy the younger boy some candy. That was the last time he ever saw Jon alive. After an excruciating weeklong disappearance, Jon's body was found in a shallow grave, having been murdered by two disturbed drifters. "Kids grow up hearing fairy tales," writes Kushner, "but the biggest fairy tale of all, I realized at the age of four, is that life is safe. Life isn't safe, I learned. It's crazy. Evil is real."
A contributing editor at Rolling Stone and a writer for Men's Journal, Kushner eloquently recounts the torrent of emotions that nearly overwhelmed him. As a child, Kushner feared being murdered when taking out the trash, while ambulance sirens convinced him that his parents were dying.
The family dealt with the tragedy by not discussing it at all, but the silence became too much for Kushner. As a 13-year-old, he snuck off to the library to read newspaper accounts of his brother's disappearance. Later, at 27, spurred by the parole hearing of one of the killers, he began researching the details of the crime, from the murderers' backgrounds, the grief felt by his parents and other brother, and the support network that helped the family cope. In the book's toughest chapter, he revisits the unspeakable brutality of the crime itself. "Jon's story was the central puzzle of my life," Kushner writes. "I wanted to learn and tell the story, the whole story of everything. I wanted to bring Jon back to life."
Accepting the burden of writing about Jon's death brought Kushner not only closer to his lost brother and remarkably resilient family but to a fuller understanding of himself as he struggled to keep the fear of death and abduction from interfering with parenting his own young children. Early in the process of working on the book, Kushner's father told him the manuscript "will be the best thing you ever write." Indeed, Alligator Candy is a powerful meditation on sorrow and survival. Ultimately, Kushner pieces together his own answer to the unsolved mystery lurking deep within the best true crime stories, the realization that "monsters are among us, and, yet, knowing this, to find a way to survive and live."