Book Review: The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders

September 6, 2016 0

I learned about the Phantom serial killings after watching Killer Legends, a horror-documentary that examines the origins of various urban legends. The director, Joshua Zeman, also directed Cropsey, a documentary well-worth seeing. The book came to my attention when James Presley, the author of The Phantom Killer, was interviewed in the documentary about the murders.

Here are the basic facts: a person or persons unknown attacked eight young people in the Texarkana area, targeting couples necking in cars in lover’s lanes. He killed five people; three escaped. This was in 1946, decades before Robert Ressler coined the term serial killer. The author does a fine job detailing the investigation, which by today’s standards was shoddy. The lawmakers in question had never dealt with serial killings and focused on motives like robbery or revenge, trying to locate enemies of the couples. This was the wrong approach, as most serial killers do not know their victims.

A man named Youell Swinney was picked up by the police and immediately became the Number One Suspect, for reasons I still don’t quite understand. It seems that one of the investigators came up with the theory that the killer might be using stolen cars, and Swinney was a known car thief who operated in the area. Investigators placed Swinney near the crime scenes on the nights of the murders. However, they had nothing more than circumstantial evidence on him.

Peggy, Swinney’s wife, gave a statement to the effect that her husband was the Phantom, claiming that she witnessed two of the murders, but as his wife Texas law forbade her from testifying against him. From the author’s account, it’s doubtful she would have made a good witness. Eventually, Swinney was convicted as a habitual offender – he had a long list of crimes, ranging from petty theft, burglary and counterfeiting and escalating to assault and car theft – and given a life sentence (Texas had a three strikes and you’re out law). He was released in 1973 and spent the rest of his life in and out of jail.

The first half of The Phantom Killer is by far more interesting. Mr. Presley paints a vivid picture of Texarkana in 1946 and gives us a detailed description of the crime and subsequent investigation, conducted by a number of colorful lawmen. The second half of the book lagged, focusing on Swinney and how investigators attempted and ultimately failed to build a case against him.

The obvious question is whether Swinney was indeed the Phantom. The author is convinced he was. Please note that Mr. Presley’s uncle was a sheriff deeply involved in the Phantom case, so he can hardly be called unbiased. After reading this book, I wasn’t convinced. Lawmakers never had anything more than circumstantial evidence against Swinney, and it seems doubtful a jury would have sent him to the electric chair on that basis. The other question that comes up is whether Swinney had adequate legal representation, which is perhaps of greater interest to legal scholars.

I drew three conclusions from reading The Phantom Killer: 1. Swinney could have been the Phantom; 2. Lawmakers couldn’t prove Swinney was the Phantom; 3. Swinney was sent to prison – fairly or unfairly – for a number of lesser crimes using laws then on the books.

I’m still unsure why Swinney suddenly became the main suspect. To me, it looks like lawmen decided that the killer was also a car thief, which automatically made Swinney – a known car thief – their number one suspect. Strangely, they never had two of the survivors try to pick Swinney out of a lineup, even though one of them said her assailant had a voice she’d never forget.

And then there’s Peggy Swinney’s statement. Actually, statements would be more accurate. Her first account of the night of the double murder is full of inconsistencies. Her revised statement, made months later, is much more coherent, mentioning a number of crucial details she’d omitted in her first account. Amazingly, Ms. Swinney’s memory of the events of that night seemed to become clearer with the passage of time; either that, or she was coached, picking up salient details over the course of multiple interrogations.

The Phantom Killer contains a fair bit of psychobabble about why Swinney was such an unpleasant character. It is undeniable that Swinney was a sociopath, displaying violent and antisocial tendencies. He could have been The Phantom, and the murders ceased after his imprisonment. It is also undeniable that lots of people in Texarkana –by the author’s own admission, a hotbed of crime – had similar psychological profiles and could have been the Phantom also.

So did the Phantom Killer escape justice? It’s hard for me to believe that he just stopped killing, although apparently sometimes serial killers do. My feeling is that he either killed himself or was jailed for another crime. Was the Phantom Killer Youell Swinney? He fits the profile, but we’ll never know.

Book Review: Beyond Your Touch and A Hold on Me by Pat Esden

August 29, 2016 1

Pat Esden’s books are my first foray into New Adult fiction. I held a stereotype that New Adult is largely a soft porn delivery system. Now, Pat’s work is in fact very steamy and very humid.  Not only is her work satisfying on that front, but also it delivers a story punch as well.  Both A Hold on Me and Beyond Your Touch are published by Kensington.

So…spoilers about the first book. Be careful here.

Pat’s series starts with A Hold on Me, in which our heroine, Annie, discoveries that her past has been altered to protect her from knowledge of how her father’s magical family is involved in a war fighting djinn. As a child, Annie did not warn her family about how her mother was being visited by a djinn, and she feels responsible for her mother’s kidnapping. All of this is revealed against a backdrop of Annie’s father’s possession, cure, and reconciliation with his family. Also, there’s this guy named Chase, who happens to be half-ifrit, half-human, and all hot.

The next book, coming out in September, is Beyond Your Touch. Annie and Chase are now in a full-fledged, torrid and sexy relationship. Tension is introduced in two ways–a rescue mission will be launched to the djinn realms to rescue Annie’s mom, and in order to go to the djinn realms, the assistance of a magical flute player, Lotli, is required. Annie is convinced that something is up between Chase and Lotli, especially after Chase cools it with Annie so he can concentrate on the mission. Annie discovers more about her new family and her role in it. The mission to the djinn realm does not go as planned, and the book ends with the stakes higher than the book began.

If you’ve never read New Adult and you’d like to give it a try, I would recommend Pat Esden’s books. The story and the hot sex are co-conspirators in a partnership that pulls you in and keeps you moving through the story. Whether you are a lover of romance, or adventure, there’s plenty here to satisfy both those interests. I particularly found the subject matter interesting, as I have done some research regarding djinn and Solomon for my own work, so it’s nice to see how someone else interprets it.

A Hold on Me is available now. If you act very quickly, you may have just enough time to finish it before Beyond Your Touch arrives at your local bookstore.

You can stop yanking your braid now

July 12, 2016 0

In the early ‘90s, I had two requirements for my fiction purchases.

They (nearly always) had to be fantasy, and they (always always) had to be heavy.

I was a fast reader without a lot of money, and I never seemed to be near an open library when I needed something new to read. (Besides which, I’d long-since learned that my tendency to keep library books well past their due dates sometimes resulted in them costing more than they would have if I’d just bought them in the first place. I’ve gotten better about that.) I bought used when I could, but for the most part, I gravitated toward fantasy epics available from the Waldenbooks in the Foothills Mall in Fort Collins, Colorado.

That was where I first met Robert Jordan.

This was not a case of love at first sight. How could it be, with Darryl K. Sweet’s notorious cover art? (I wasn’t the only one who hated “dwarf Moiraine on a pony”) But as the series grew, and I began to run out of really large books to read, I softened, and finally one day I agreed to take just one volume home.

I was hooked. I tore through Eye of the World and quickly moved on to The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn. The books were still coming out once a year at this point, so in between I’d re-read the previous novels and lurk on the various websites that were already springing up to discuss them.

To tell you how much the series meant to me, my very first tattoo (since covered by my very second tattoo) was an Avendesora leaf.

But then the publication schedule started slowing down. It was two years between Lord of Chaos and A Crown of Swords, and very little happened in A Crown of Swords. Another two years passed before The Path of Daggers, and by then there were seven books to be re-read before I started into the next one. When I heard from a friend that not much more happened in Path than had happened in Crown, I decided that I’d wait for the final book, then start over at the beginning.

I never expected it to take another 14 years.

When the news came out last year that Brandon Sanderson would finish the series in November 2011 (later pushed to March 2012), I got ready for the re-read. I started it in November, figuring I could read one book a month at that rate and be ready when A Memory of Light was released.

It was interesting to revisit books I’d read so long ago, not only because I’d forgotten so much, but also because I don’t read the same way I did then. In the interim, I started learning to read like a writer—and while I admire the way Jordan does some things, there are others I find almost painful. I also discovered that some fantasy tropes that didn’t faze me 20 years ago bug the shit out of me now.

Robert Jordan, like Stephen King, was very, very good at sketching out a character in a very few strokes.

“Easier to watch old Harriet Bennigan, who made Mrs. Perrine look like a spring chicken, bent over her walker in her bright red fall coat, out for her morning lurch,” King wrote in Insomnia. And, in the same book, he describes a neighborhood “where no house was complete without at least one Fisher-Price Big Wheel trike standing on the listless lawn, where girls were stepping dynamite at sixteen and all too often dull-eyed, fat-bottomed mothers of three at twenty-four.” (Because King’s places are characters, too.)

The comparison occurred me to when I reread The Fires of Heaven, which contains one of my favorite minor characters, a man named Pevin. (Whose fate I’m about to spoil, so quit reading if that bothers you.)

[Asmodean] no longer carried the crimson banner with its ancient symbol of Aes Sedai. That office fell to a Cairhienin refugee named Pevin, an expressionless fellow in a patched farmer’s coat of rough gray wool, on a brown mule that should have been put out to grass from pulling a cart some years back. A long scar, still red, ran up the side of his narrow face from jaw to thinning hair.

Pevin had lost his wife and sister to the famine, his brother and a son to the civil war… Fleeing toward Andor had cost him a second son at the hands of Andoran soldiers and a second brother to bandits, and returning had cost the last son, dead on a Shaido spear, and his daughter as well, carried off while Pevin was left for dead. The man rarely spoke, but as near as Rand could make out, his beliefs had winnowed down to a bare three. The Dragon had been reborn. The Last Battle was coming. And if he stayed close to Rand al’Thor, he would see his family avenged before the world was destroyed.

In a couple of paragraphs, Jordan tells you who Pevin is, what he looks like, where he came from, and where he’s going. He also tells you that the man’s expression never changes. But in case you missed that bit…

Pevin’s face never changed, though the bright banner whipping above him appeared a mockery in that place.

Whoever managed to put hand to anyone’s boot or stirrup, even Pevin’s, wore joy on their faces…

Pevin, with the crimson banner hanging limply from its staff, and no more expression surrounded by Aiel than at any other time.

You might also have noticed that Pevin carries a banner? I’m not sure, but it might be red.

Pevin came down past Bael to stand behind Rand’s shoulder with the banner, his narrow, scarred face absolutely blank. “Does the whole palace know about this, then?” Rand asked.

“I heard,” Pevin said. His jaw worked, chewing for more words. Rand had found him a replacement for his patched country coat, good red wool, and the man had had Dragons embroidered on it, one climbing either side of his chest. “That you were going. Somewhere.” That seemed to exhaust his store.

“Chewing for more words,” by the way, is a brilliant line.

Pevin looked no more perturbed by what he saw than the Aiel chief, which was to say, not at all.

Aiel, if you didn’t know, are always calm, too. Unless they’re veiled for battle. Then they might crack a smile, but you wouldn’t know, since you can’t see their faces behind the veils. They like to tell jokes, too.

Pevin would carry that banner wherever Rand went, even the Pit of Doom, and never blink.

Yes, we gathered.

[Rand] took in the plaza again, and his joy faded. Nothing could extinguish it, but the bodies lying in heaps where the Aiel had made their stand lessened it. Too many were not big enough to be men. There was Lamelle, veil gone and half her throat as well; she would never make him soup again. Pevin, both hands clutching the wrist-thick shaft of the Trolloc spear through his chest and the first expression on his face Rand had ever seen. Surprise.

“That’s perfect,” I thought when I read it again. And for a character like Pevin, who’s introduced on page 739 and dies on page 954, it is. The problem, as anyone who’s read even a couple of the books knows, is that this is Jordan’s approach to all of his characters. Rand is tall. The Aiel are fierce. Nynaeve yanks on her dark, waist-length braid when she’s angry, which is always. Elayne tips her chin up haughtily and puts her nose in the air. Lan is stoic. Moiraine is short. Oh, and Mat? Mat’s a gambler who likes pretty girls and whose bottom Nynaeve often paddled, not so many years ago. Sometimes, he hears dice rattling inside his head.

Jay Bushman might have read the books.

All of which brings me to Lawrence Block, and his advice on character building (from Telling Lies for Fun and Profit).

It’s not uncommon for writers to do a lot of labeling and mistake it for originality of characterization. “I’m starting a detective series,” a hopeful writer said to me not long ago, “and I think I’ve got something really original. My character never gets out of bed before noon, and he makes it a rule always to wear one piece of red clothing, and the only thing he ever drinks is white creme de menthe on the rocks. He has a pet rhesus monkey named Bitsy and a parrot named Sam. What do you think?”

What I think is that the speaker has not a character but a collection of character tags. It might work to have a character with any of all of these labels in his garments. Matter of fact, I wrote the above paragraph thinking of a detective character of the late David Alexander’s who lived upstairs of a 42nd Street flea circus, always wore a loud vest, drank only Irish whiskey and never took a drink before four o’clock or refused one after that hour. That character, however, was not the mere sum of these attributes. It is not the quirks that make an enduring character but the essential personality which the quirks highlight. How that character views the world, how acts and reacts, is of much greater importance than what he had for breakfast.

And that’s the problem with Jordan’s character building, throughout the books. Too often, his characters — even his main characters — are collections of labels, hanging from an empty frame. As a result, I find myself reading for story and plot, rather than for character. When the story slows down, or gets mired in details of hairstyles and politics and clothing, I get impatient — which is a terrible thing to be when you’re less than halfway through a series that runs to four million words or more.

Note: This post originally appeared, in two parts, on my now-defunct blog Art of the Odd, in April and July 2011. It has been cross-posted to Medium.

What Kind of Publishing is Best for Me?

March 21, 2016 0

It was and still is my hope to post every two weeks here.  My apologies. February and March have been particularly hard months in terms of germs and well, other biological haphazards.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about self-publishing. The short version of a very long story goes something like this: I’ve been approached by a couple of hybrid publishers about taking on one of my novels. My friends who self-publish asked why I wouldn’t, and while those books undergo scrutiny with the hybrid publishers, I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions. I thought maybe some of you might be asking those very questions.

There are no easy answers, and part of the reason I was keen to undertake this podcasting adventure with my wonderful Narrator friends is because I wanted to at least look at some answers and talk to some people who could keep us informed. For example, we’ve already talked to someone who has published small press, someone who’s huge on Wattpad, and someone from Gumroad. Soon, we’ll have an interview with Patreon, and in our New Books by New Authors series, we’ll talk to people who have published themselves, someone who is with an Amazon imprint, and someone who is taking a more traditional road.

I have friends and acquaintances who have had incredible success with a traditional path, and others for whom the traditional path has been very frustrating. I know people who have gained agents and access from putting out quality self-pubbed books. It seems that the best way to answer the question of what kind of publishing is best for me is to think about some of the goals of my writing.

So, I’ll be working on a series of posts as I work toward my research and try to figure out my decision. Currently, I will continue to send my novel to traditional agents. Next post, I’ll talk about that submission process and what that’s like for me. There are some serious advantages to pursuing traditional publishing, and though I am wondering if my current project will be best at home there, I want to talk about them.

Soon, I hope.

Book Review: Hostage to the Devil!

December 27, 2015 0

Say-tan take my hand

One of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. According to the author, Say-tan (one of this book’s many gems is learning the correct way to say the Devil’s name in case you’re ever at a Black Mass) has been a busy boy. Among other things, the author believes that the Satanic Ritual Panic of the early 80’s really happened; one of the many signs that far from writing a serious religious treatise, he has penned a crackpot New Age book. There is quite a bit of material about the Satanic Scare of the 80’s written by psychologists and law enforcement agents. The author either didn’t bother doing his research or just chose to ignore it. This is not surprising. I get the impression that he will pretty much believe anything, as long as it’s couched in religious jargon.

Most of this book is spent railing against the fact that the Earth has entered the 21st century. Goddamn kids these days are such easy prey for Say-tan. The stories of the exorcisms are pretty much pure fantasy. I’m not belittling what these people (if they even exist) went through, because mental illness isn’t a funny thing. I seriously doubt they were possessed by anything, although the author himself harbors no such doubts.

Mr. Martin would have been a great horror writer; and I mean that as a compliment, not an insult. He pulls off the neat trick of linking the exorcists with the possessed; in these ‘case studies,’ the victims aren’t even important. They are set pieces to test the exorcists’ faith. For example: one of the exorcists blasphemously believes in evolution. The demon uses this crack in his holy armor to hammer at his faith. Luckily, the exorcist discards this belief for something more suitably Middle Ages, and all is well again!

My only quibble with this book is that the author’s prose sometimes flies off into flights of crapulastic verbal ecstasy, making one worry that he himself has been possessed by a bloviating devil.

Say-tan would be so proud!