Wednesday, 6 February 2002
Steven Saylor: Honour the Dead (2000)
Edition: Constable, 2001
Review number: 1060
William Porter, better known as writer O. Henry, had a secret past which only came to light with his early death at the height of his fame. As a young man, he lived in the city of Austin, Texas, at a time when the state was moving away from its earlier Wild West lawlessness. There, he had embezzled money from the bank where he worked, and had run away to the Honduras, a country with which the US had no extradition treaty and which became the basis of Anchuria in Cabbages and Kings. When he was informed that his wife was dying from consumption, he returned, and after her death served a prison term. Even after he became successful, it is thought that he was the victim of a blackmailer, though it is not quite clear whether this was connected to his jail sentence (he was certainly afraid that revelation of his past would destroy his popularity) or whether some other secret was involved.
What Saylor has done is connect Porter's early life with a serial killing in Austin in the 1880s, while he was there, a sequence of horrific murders to rival Jack the Ripper's more famous Whitechapel killings at about the same time. Austin's police force used an investigation method which basically consisted of finding some black man with a connection to the victim, and asserting his guilt, something which even at the time began to cause something of a scandal. The obvious parallels with cases like that of Rodney King show that American law enforcement has not, however, advanced as much as might be hoped. (And the UK is hardly perfect, with the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six only relatively recently being officially exonerated.)
Many of the characters in Saylor's novel are real people; several of the ideas, including his solution to the mystery and, I suspect though he doesn't actually say, the mechanism of Porter's connection to it are fictional. Saylor's earlier Roman novels show that he is an expert in blending fact and fiction, a necessary quality in any successful historical novelist. Moving out of his familiar background while still remaining successful was quite a steep challenge (the work involved in research alone is not negligible), and so Saylor has shown considerable versatility.
Honour the Dead is a long novel, much longer than most of the Gordianus series, and it doesn't consistently hold the reader's interest. The case itself is fascinating, if repellent, and Saylor's conclusion feels satisfying once it is reached, but I never had any desire to read more than two or three chapters at a sitting. Good, but not Saylor's best.