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Set in New York City in 1882, the story hilariously chronicles the adventures of police chief Caleb Spencer and his two cohorts, Evening Post reporter Liz Smith and mayor Teddy Roosevelt, as they unravel the ...
Set in New York City in 1882, the story hilariously chronicles the adventures of police chief Caleb Spencer and his two cohorts, Evening Post reporter Liz Smith and mayor Teddy Roosevelt, as they unravel the mystery of the world's first (and most bizarre) serial killer: Jack the Jolly Thwacker. The elusive Thwacker dresses his victims in outlandish costumes, leaves behind taunting poetry, and leads the authorities on a wild chase through New York streets and landmarks (complete with gas-powered wooden cell phones, carriages, gaslights, and the original Original Ray's Pizzeria). In a bizarre twist, Chris Elliott himself joins the action, using time travel and historical documents to uncover the Thwacker's identity.
With a wink and a nod to Patricia Cornwell, The DaVinci Code, and Caleb Carr's mysteries, Elliott does for the historical crime genre what Douglas Adams did for science fiction in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
In which a damsel is discovered in a most compromising position.
August 25th, 1882, 9:00 pm
It had been a particularly sweltering summer in New York City, the hottest summer on record (and, not coincidentally, the first summer on record). By all accounts this evening promised to be yet another in the long progression of dog days that oozed like a piece of soft, runny brie served with a hunk of moldy French bread and washed down with a mug of room-temperature Clamato. Each day melting into the next with an excruciatingly, sluggishly slow excruciating monotony. The Santa Ana wind hissed as it blew through the narrow, rough-hewn, cobblestone, gaslit, historically accurate streets, and then it giggled down Fifth Avenue, baking the leaves on the mango and banana trees lining the fashionable boulevard into crisp, brittle parchment. Indeed, the summer of 1882 was nearly as tedious as my first paragraph has been, and I thank you for your patience.
On Twenty-third Street, the sun was setting over the newly built concrete-and-steel Flatiron Building, named for its innovative shape (and coincidentally after its insane architect, José Emmanuel Flitarron). It was the tallest building in Manhattan in 1882, though within a year it would be dwarfed by the Pan Am Building, which was already well under way. The street was strewn with paper streamers, confetti, shredded balloons, and discarded wooden legs. Sanitation workers ran around like madmen, heads upturned, arms flailing, chasing the last of the floating feathers that hovered like small ghosts, refusing to drift within arm's reach. The feathers were castoffs from the annual Mummer's Day parade, which had ended only an hour before. Occasionally two sanitation workers would run into each other and a vicious slap fight would ensue.
A block east, in a nondescript brownstone, the killer put the final touches on a letter addressed to the Evening Post. He licked a stamp commemorating Thomas Edison's triumphant electrocution of Jumbo the Giant Elephant, sealed the envelope with a wax crest depicting a skull and crossbones in a bowler hat, and placed the correspondence on top of his stack of outgoing taunting mail. He donned his black overcoat and top hat, grabbed the carpetbag in which he carried his instruments of death-as well as his workout clothes for later-and snuffed out the candle. (Whale oil prices had skyrocketed ever since the sinking of the Pequod, and he hadn't paid his bill in months.) Then, with a spring in his step and a song in his heart, he headed out into the dark and steamy night.
Across town, in the "unfortunates' district," there was a ramshackle hovel with nothing more than a bed, a woodstove, and a framed tintype depicting a cat hanging by its paws from an iron rod. The caption read, "I Most Humbly Request That You Hang in There, Baby," a bit of inspiration for the occupant, who sorely needed it. She was a broken-down prostitute by the name of Sally "Old Toothless Sally" Jenkins, and she readied herself for another long night's work by lacing up her worn-out boots, shifting her heavy skirt so that it faced the right direction, and dousing her underarms with turpentine. She caught her reflection in the mirror and cackled, "Well now, ain't you a pretty one!"
Her cackle was quickly overtaken by a wet coughing fit. The gross hacking seemed to last forever. Neighbors pounded on the walls. Finally, Sally expelled a huge wad of phlegm that shot from her lungs and blew across the room like a cannonball, landing with a plop in a pan of simmering porridge atop her stove.
"Oh bother," she said, lighting the end of a half-smoked cigar, "I got phlegm in me porridge." And with that she collapsed back onto her bed.
* * *
At around nine o'clock, Broadway filled with theater patrons stepping out at intermission for a breath of stale air. In the poverty-stricken neighborhoods, indigent children opened fire hydrants and splashed about in the filthy gutters, contracting cholera, while uptown the more posh types like the Vanderbilts, the Bloomingdales, and the Trumps sipped their mint juleps, made fun of poor people, and frolicked on their private beaches along the East River, also contracting cholera.
On this night Mark Twain twirled his rope at Lincoln Center, Houdini performed his straitjacket trick at Avery Fisher Hall, and John Merrick, the Elephant Man, did his song and dance routine for a handful of potheads at the band shell in Central Park. All the rummeries and brothels were overflowing, and the restaurants were filled to the brim.
At Delmonico's, Mayor Teddy Roosevelt sat finishing his boiled cabbage and hind-quarters pie. His guest for the evening was Caleb Spencer, chief of police for the NCNYPD. The two were celebrating the arrest, earlier in the day, of Dandy Dan, the Water Man. For months now, he had terrified young couples in Central Park. Whilst a romantic tryst was under way, the culprit would hide in the bushes, growling and gnashing his teeth. When the moment was right, he would spring out on all fours, lift his leg, and urinate with great force on the young lady's fine evening frock.
Spencer had apprehended the felon his way. Not trusting the officious Detective Thomas Byrnes and his roundsmen with such a high-profile case, he had gone undercover, alone. He disguised himself as both a man and a woman. It was an elaborate costume, but it worked: a man in a tuxedo on one side, a woman in a ball gown on the other. When he twirled rapidly about, you'd swear he was a pair of young lovers doing a steamy, down-and-dirty tango. (Well, maybe you wouldn't swear, but it was enough to fool a man who spent the better part of the day hiding in the bushes.) It also displayed a bit of creative thinking on Caleb's part-something of which Detective Byrnes was incapable. Byrnes and Spencer had endured the police academy's rigorous training together, but their strained and often competitive relationship had only further deteriorated after Caleb's quick rise within the department. He was now Byrnes's superior and Byrnes didn't like it.
Roosevelt tapped a glass with a spoon. "I say, my good man, tell me exactly how you managed to corner the dastardly malefactor! I always love a good story."
"Well," Caleb began, "I had just drawn my 'lovely partner' toward me, when I saw this gentleman on his hands and knees, barking. I thought to myself, 'Now, that is highly unusu-'"
"Bully!" interrupted Roosevelt.
Caleb sighed. The mayor loved a good story, but only if it was his own.
"My dear Mr. Spencer, have I ever told you about the time I slept in a hollowed-out four-day-old water buffalo carcass?"
"Yes, I believe that you have, Mayor, several times in fact, but as I have never paid any attention, you may proceed as if you have not."
"Jolly good then!" And with that, the jovial mayor launched into another boring story of his exploits. Caleb was amazed at how his sarcasm flew straight over Roosevelt's perfectly round head. Insulting Roosevelt without the mayor's realizing it had become a game for Spencer's own private amusement. (Spencer had always been a bit of a loner, and he enjoyed nothing more than playing with himself.)
At thirty-three, he was already a seasoned veteran of the force. Having joined when he was a mere five years of age-to work the badge-polishing machine-he rose quickly within the ranks, making lieutenant by the time he was six. His hard-nosed, no-nonsense, look-at-me-indecently-and-I'll-kick-your-posterior-from-here-to-China approach had impressed the older, fatter, and even more incontinent coppers. Upon his appointment as chief, the young crime-fighter garnered a reputation not only for being a good cop, but also, according to an editorial in the Evening Post:
... for having looks and appeal so devastatingly dashing as to make any proper woman of childbearing age swoon with delight at visions of the strapping young police chief, buck naked except for a cowboy hat, dancing in her head.
However, much had changed since those words were penned. For starters, he had stopped dating the Evening Post's star reporter, but the times had also been hard on him. Three short years presiding over the most corrupt, crime-ridden city in the world had aged him. His hairline had begun to recede, and what remained was going quickly gray. To make matters worse, Roosevelt had ambushed him at the scene of Dandy Dan's arrest and insisted that he come to dinner, and Spencer had had no time to change out of his disguise. So there he sat, wearied by the night's ordeals and the mayor's long-winded diatribes, with half a blond wig hanging precariously askew, still bedecked in the now filthy tuxedo and torn ball gown, and scented, faintly, with the pungent effluvium of wine. He looked less like a dashing police chief and more like Bette Davis in Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte after being flattened by a steamroller.
"Oh my, look at the time," he announced, returning his pocket watch to the shiny sequined purse that he clutched to his feminine side. "Mayor, I thank you for a lovely evening. Your self-indulgent anecdotes were both egocentric on the one hand, and long-winded and pointless on the other, but now I must be on my way."
"Let's us two have a toast!" the mayor roared, lifting his goblet of Umbria Vittiono '54, a robust merlot aged with a fine mix of red grapes from the Napa Valley and the essence of pure heroin (which was perfectly legal in the Age of Innocence, and was referred to as "God's Own Medicine").
Caleb was uncomfortable with congratulations of any kind, and he knew that the toast would be in his honor. So, to get the embarrassment over with, he quickly raised his flaming dry martini, laced with uncut cocaine and liquid arsenic (both also perfectly legal, and known as "God's Own Snuff" and "God's Own Rat Poison," respectively).
"In all my years as mayor, I've been privileged to witness several heroic acts of bravery perpetrated by our fine constabulary."
Okay, here it comes, thought Caleb.
"But nothing that could compare with what I faced when leading a handful of ragtag, battle-weary soldiers on that fateful charge up the great San Juan Hill."
"The Spanish-American War doesn't even happen until 1898," Caleb snapped. "If you are going to force me to endure your stories, at least get your facts straight."
Roosevelt looked hurt. "Are you calling me a liar, Mr. Spencer?"
Caleb sighed. The worst part of his job was dealing with the sensitive emotions of the city's rich and powerful. Still, he preferred Roosevelt, who was merely pompous, to some of the more nefarious types he had to deal with, like J. P. Morgan, the Rockefellers, or the worst of them all, William "Boss" Tweed. He had dined with Boss Tweed on more than one occasion, and he had always left the meal feeling quite dirty all over. Roosevelt, for all his long-windedness-and chronic flatulence-was his only ally against Tweed and his dreaded Tammany Machine.
"Not at all, Mayor. Please, continue."
"There I was atop my trusty steed Bully Boy, bugle in one hand and saber outstretched in the other. All around us-in every direction-bloodthirsty Indians as far as the eye could see ..."
If this was going to end in a toast to Caleb, it was going to take a while. He sneaked another look at his timepiece. It was now 9:23. The hands blurred and dissolved as Caleb's eyes glazed over. The hypnotic, rhythmic pounding of Roosevelt's garbled voice droned on and on and on.
* * *
On Tenth Avenue, Old Toothless Sally had finally gotten it together and was out hawking her goods.
"Hello, gov'nor. Care for a quick bibble in the old bobble?"
A quick bibble in the old bobble cost an even sixpence, while a "wet waggle" cost a ha'penny or two. "A fish in a dish, with tartar sauce on the side" was a full tuppence. If someone wanted an all-night "dilly-wonker" or a "triple wraparound digger," that was extra, and Sally always made it clear up front that she wasn't into anything weird.
At approximately 9:20, a morbidly obese albino man coming out of the original Original Ray's Pizzeria on Eleventh Avenue witnessed Sally waddling up Eighth Street. He later said that she belched, picked something out of her ear, hawked up a loogie "of unbelievable size," and then turned onto Ninth, heading east.
It was the last time she would be seen alive, for at that exact moment, the killer walked through the Five Points district of lower Manhattan. He walked warily; even for him, this neighborhood was dangerous. It was populated by large street gangs with unusual names like the Flapjacks, the Garlic Knots, the Venti Caffe Lattes, and the Toasted Bialys with a Schmeer. Often these packs would engage in ultraviolent, riotous brawls that could last the whole night long and would inevitably end with at least one gang member running home in tears. Tonight, however, the killer was lucky. It was all quiet in the Five Points. He made his way up Broadway, where he paused to buy a cup of mayonnaise from a street vendor. In 1882 a man named Hellmann had just invented this oil-and-egg delight, but he wasn't yet sure how to market it. He started with street carts, selling it like ice cream. New Yorkers were so crazy about the new treat that they were more than content, at present, to eat it from a cup with a spoon, or perhaps on a sugar cone with chocolate sprinkles.
After finishing his mayo, the killer picked up his pace. The need to murder, maim, and mutilate began to boil up in his veins. He quickly strode the three blocks to Herald Square, where he hoisted up his woolen trousers and waded through the waist-high manure. Back then there were no cars, and the buggy horses left behind copious amounts of waste. Herald Square's bowl-shaped topography (it was actually below sea level) had made it the repository for most of the city's excrement, as well as most of the city's missing persons.
He was now just one block away from the history books, and ahead, at about ten yards and closing, Old Toothless Sally Jenkins was just one high-pitched cackle away from becoming the first unfortunate victim of Jack the Jolly Thwacker.
* * *
"... and that's when I decided that the elephant's foot would make a bully coffee table!" Roosevelt exploded with a boisterous laugh that shook Caleb back to reality.
"So here's to me," bellowed Teddy. "Long may I live. Chin chin, my good friend!" Caleb and the mayor clinked glasses.
"I'll second that, gentlemen," said a woman's voice.
"Well, by golly almighty! Look what the cat dragged in!" Roosevelt bellowed. He stood up, and the tablecloth, tucked into his trousers, pulled up with him, emptying the contents of their glasses into Caleb's lap. This time, the long-suffering police chief didn't even bother to sigh, but merely dabbed at his wet crotch with a handkerchief.
"Why, if it isn't the charming Elisabeth Smith, columnist par excellence for the Evening Post," Roosevelt schmoozed while taking her hand.
She was the last person Caleb wanted to see, especially in his current condition.
"Oh, Mr. Mayor, you're much too kind."
"On the contrary, miss, I am not kind at all. But I am as strong as a bull moose and you may use me to the limit!" With that the mayor clicked his heels and kissed Elisabeth's hand.
"I have no idea what that means," she said, still smiling.
"But I thought you were on assignment somewhere in Japan," said Roosevelt.
"Close; Egypt, to be precise. I was following the exploits of Mr. Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon. They were excavating old houses belonging to the slaves who built Ramses the Sixth's tomb. It was all quite boring really, until they reached a door that they couldn't seem to budge. They claimed that something wonderful was on the other side, but by then I was simply fed up with all the sand and all the dirt and grit. It was finding its way into-" She paused, as if looking for the right words. "Every orifice that I have." She paused again, frowning, as if those weren't the right words at all. "I mean, I just had to get back home, and so here I am."
"And we're all the better for it," cooed the mayor. "Tell me, did Mr. Carter and Lord Carnarvon ever get the door open?"
"Beats me. Who's the trannie?" Elisabeth asked, referring to Caleb.
"My apologies. Police Chief Spencer, may I introduce Miss Elisabeth Smith." Caleb reluctantly stood, staring forlornly at his crotch.
"Hello, Liz," he muttered.
Excerpted from THE SHROUD OF THE THWACKER by CHRIS ELLIOTT Copyright © 2005 by Chris Elliott. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 23, 2009
This book is a black hole of silliness - such a concentration of sophomoric wit that it sucks all vestiges of humor out of the atmosphere and allows none to escape.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 4, 2009
Posted May 2, 2009
Chris, who is a close personal friend of mine, first approached me several years ago to discuss an idea for a book. He consults me often with decisions he makes about his life. When he explained his idea about a mass murderer who lived in New York in the 1800's I laughed in his face. We have a very open and trusting relationship. As he outlined his ideas I sat there shaking my head, thinking "This guy has finally gone over the deep end." After all, I was the one who tried to tell him that "Cabin Boy" was not a good career move, but did he listen to me then, oh no. So I could see that he was hell bent for leather to write this book. So, he wrote it, and as I thought, it was not a good idea.
Serioulsy folks, I bought the damn thing because it was marked down. It started well in that I smiled a couple of times early on in the book. But he ran out of steam and the schtick grew tiresome. I finished the book in an act of self flagellation. I think I'll use it as a gift for someone I don't really like. Otherwise, reading the book was losing several hours I'll never get back.
Posted April 27, 2009
By reading the synopsis from this book it looked like it might be an interesting read, but I was seriously wrong! Horrible plot line with weird characters, not to mention the fact that the author keeps throwing himself in the plot line for some reason. Odd all the way around.........Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 16, 2006
The book started out interestingly enough. The the author began to pepper superfluous and rediculous details. Satire of modern day- like kerosene fired wooden cellphone in the 1890's turned to the REALLY DUMB. Things like a a westside gang of violent infants ruling the streets. And got even worse. Talking about intentionally blinding orphans so they would not notice the orphanage had poor views from its windows. Trying to be funny I guess he ran out of gas and just threw patheticly dumb stuff in. It had my interest early on. Then got to be a bit much. Too bad.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 28, 2005
I enjoyed the first half of the book but by the second half Chris' cute / funny little comments on every page started to get a little tiresome to the point I was just trying to get to the end.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 21, 2005
Posted November 19, 2005
Posted May 9, 2009
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Posted November 23, 2009
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Posted May 28, 2011
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