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.

37.0 – Editor Spotlight: C.C. Finlay

August 25, 2016 0

UN_CCC.C. Finlay became the editor of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine in early 2015. He’s also written fiction, including the Traitor to the Crown series, and bootstrapped the Blue Heaven writing workshop. We caught up with Charlie at MidAmeriCon II and picked his brain about writing, editing and supporting others.

F&SF’s Worldcon discount code remains in effect this week, so take advantage of an astounding deal: an annual subscription via Kindle for a mere five bucks! Follow the link to support great fiction and features from a true friend to writers everywhere.

35.0 – Author Spotlight: Ann Leckie

August 18, 2016 0

un_leckieThis week we’re at Worldcon! But before we left we had a chat with Ann Leckie, author of the Hugo and Nebula winning Imperial Radch series. We discuss the books in the series as well as Ann’s short fiction and her stint as editor of Giganotasaurus. We may have pressured her for details on her upcoming books as well as a few other, uh, ancillary topics.

We’re at Worldcon!

August 15, 2016 0

Chris, Cath and George will be at MidAmeriCon II this week! Will you? Find us on Twitter if you’re around and want to say hi. We’re looking forward to connecting with friends and former guests! (And hey, if you want a bit part in our upcoming radio drama, that may be arranged. Mwahaha…)

In other news, we’ve added a couple of short blooper files to our Extras page. Hard to believe, but we do occasionally biff the show in comical fashion.

What else are we up to? Glad you asked. Dr. Cath will share her expertise on two panels at Worldcon this week. Chris just wrapped up DraculaFest with a summary mega-post. Chia’s spending the summer in Florida and has the pics to prove it (with a brief stint back in Boston to cover Forbidden Research). And George is held hostage by a feline overlord. Don’t send help.

Thanks for listening! New show coming soon.

34.0 – Author Spotlight: Thomas Olde Heuvelt

August 11, 2016 0

un_heuveltDutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt‘s frightening novel Hex is out now in North America. He joined us during his recent tour of the U.S. to talk about the book and the process of updating the text for a foreign audience. We also find out about his other work–including the recent Hugo-winning story, The Day the World Turned Upside Down–and what’s in store for the future.

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