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Chris Elliott: The Shroud of the Thwacker

 

Crescent Blues Book Views Hyperion (Hardcover), ISBN 1-4013-5245-6

Book: jaid black, One Dark Night
Lured by the prospect of making lots of money, struggling 20th-century writer Chris Elliott (a sort of alter ego of the author) begins work on a book about the unsolved series of grotesque 19th-century Manhattan killings attributed to a mysterious Jack the Thwacker. After all, the case offers everything a potboiling writer could want: an anonymous stalker who felled his killers with Mackintosh apples, then turned their mutilated bodies into bizarre tableaux; a detective team comprising NYPD detective Caleb Spencer and his on-again-off-again lover, the spunky yummy-dame journalist Liz Smith, plus Teddy Roosevelt; and above all the suspicion that the murderer might have occupied a high social position. (Initially Elliott thought the perpetrator might be Goya, for no particular reason other than that Goya was a famous artist, but withdrew that suggestion when Goya's surviving descendants threatened to sue.)

As his "researches" continue, we spend most of our time in the 19th century among the filthy, violent, gaslit alleys of New York City -- which the author actually does quite a good job of evoking, even as he triumphantly mangles most of the historical facts. The remainder of the book takes place in the present day, where Elliott, living in the famous Dakota building, must cope with the fact that neighbor Yoko Ono wants to him evicted, by fair means or foul, so she can convert his apartment into another studio. But will Elliott be drawn not just figuratively but literally into the 19th-century murder plot?

For the first one-third or so of The Shroud of the Thwacker the manic inventiveness of the plot, the joyful bawdy broadness of its portrayal of the main characters (I suspect the fart-happy buffoon Roosevelt depicted here to be far closer to historical reality than the noble-idealist version we customarily meet), the constant barrage of excellently bad jokes and the satirical sideswipes at authors like Caleb Carr, Patricia Cornwell and Dan Brown more than compensate for the frequent examples of clumsy or even downright bad writing. The mixture makes for a merry melange that set me laughing out loud on more pages than not.

But then things begin to flag. The inventiveness remains, but it seems to become self-conscious, almost desperate. ("Oh, jeez, I've not had a wacky idea for a chapter or two, better think up something really outrageous quick!") At the same time, the jokes tail off in both number and hilarity. By the book's end, I continued to turn the pages fairly readily, but without much great interest, and smiles -- let alone laughs -- grew increasingly rare. The exceedingly ho-hum illustrations don't improve matters. They appear intended to charm by their amateurishness but succeed only in seeming amateur.

Terry Pratchett need not look to his laurels, but The Shroud of the Thwacker provides a first hundred pages to die for and proves at least moderately entertaining

John Grant

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