cover image A Twist at the End

A Twist at the End

Steven W. Saylor. Simon & Schuster, $25 (464pp) ISBN 978-0-684-85681-0

Based on the scandal-ridden life of short story master O. Henry and a string of gruesome murders committed in 1885 Austin, Tex., this captivating historical romance noir should be heralded as a breakout for the seasoned author of Rubicon (one of seven mysteries in his popular Roma Sub Rosa series). The intricately structured narrative opens in New York in 1906, when William Sydney Porter, now in his mid-40s and enjoying fame under the nom de plume O. Henry, is being blackmailed by the wife of a wealthy Wall Street broker who threatens to expose his secret past: the writer once served hard time as a convicted embezzler. Porter also encounters a Dr. Kringel, who bears a letter and a train ticket from the celebrated physician, Dr. Edmund Montgomery, and his wife, noted sculptress Elisabet Ney, inviting Porter to return to their plantation near Austin to learn the truth about a 20-year-old series of unsolved murders. Deftly shifting back and forth between 1906 and 1885, the novel describes Porter's life as a likable 25-year-old free spirit who--working odd jobs and hanging out with Dave Shoemaker, a young crime reporter on the Austin Statesman--gets caught up in an unsatisfactory affair with a young married woman. Porter then recalls his unwitting connection to a series of brutal axe murders of seven young women who were sexually ravaged after their deaths. A hard look at racial bigotry and politico-economic deceit in post-Civil War Texas, this well-researched, capably written novel functions not only as cracking good historical entertainment, but also as an effective morality play. Agent, Alan Nevins. (Apr.)