Parting Shots

The "Playhouse Killer" captured, "Wild Bill" remembered, and Richard Bausch bids a fond farewell.



Photograph by Mark Coleman

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A former vice detective and present-day heroin addict who also sees ghosts.

A Japanese American with a death fetish, who is also a eunuch after a stingray stings him in the you-know-where.

And a serial killer on the loose in Memphis after one of his victims is found partially eaten after being barbecued.

This isn’t the half of it. In fact, it barely begins to describe the key characters and bloody incidents in Jeff Crook’s The Sleeping and the Dead (Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s Press). But if you can stomach spectacularly gruesome crime scenes, Jackie Lyons can too.

She’s the onetime detective struggling to make a living photographing Memphis murder victims for the MPD, and the “Playhouse Killer” is keeping her busy by creating quite a scene on stages all over town. Playhouse on the Square, the Orpheum, the Levitt Shell, etc. The killer’s been there. So has Lyons to shoot a string of victims murdered according to the methods in Shakespeare’s plays.

As for the killer’s identity: Who knows? And that includes the MPD’s Adam McPeake, whose expert knowledge of the killer’s crimes once made him the subject of a cover story in the Memphis Flyer. What could have served as cover stories as well:

The murder of the wife of a FedEx pilot named James St. Michael, who sells Lyons his dead wife’s haunted Leica; the murder of Lyons’ brother when the two were teenagers growing up in Pocahontas, Arkansas; the cameraman who does double-duty as a ghost hunter; and the lousy weather. “The rain it raineth every day”? Shakespeare must have meant Memphis in November, because in these pages, there’s scarcely a ray of sunshine to lighten the dark goings-on.

Crook, who has written several fantasy books, knows Memphis top to bottom in this, his first crime novel, and part of the pleasure for local readers of The Sleeping and the Dead will be the book’s insider knowledge of the city. But word of caution to Jeff Crook, who, according to his press materials, is planning a series featuring Jackie Lyons: Scale back on the baroque bloodshed and chockablock subplotting — unless you’ve figured that’s exactly what your target audience wants: the grislier the better.

Crook, who has written several fantasy books, knows Memphis top to bottom in this, his first crime novel, and part of the pleasure for local readers of The Sleeping and the Dead will be the book's insider knowledge of the city.

The Sleeping and the Dead is fiction. The following is not: Around midnight on December 10, 1908, a man known as “Wild Bill” Latura entered a saloon at the corner of Beale and Fourth in downtown Memphis. Minutes later, he opened fire using a .38-caliber Colt automatic pistol. Three black men were killed; two black men and a black woman were wounded. Upon arrest, Latura, who was white, was quoted as saying, “I shot ’em, and that’s all there is to it.”

But that’s not all there was to it. Brought to trial for the murder of three and attempted murder of three others, the all-white jury found Latura not guilty on all counts and set him free. And they didn’t call Latura “Wild Bill” for nothing. In earlier years, he’d killed a white man with a baseball bat (in self-defense, in the opinion of the court); attempted to kill a black saloon keeper; nearly disemboweled another black man; seriously wounded a black woman after shooting her; shot and wounded another black man over a debt; then wounded another black man during a barroom brawl.

In 1912, Latura murdered yet another black man, then threatened to kill the editorial staff of The Commercial Appeal if the paper continued calling Latura “Wild Bill.” So the paper stopped, but one reporter didn’t in an article that described Latura as a Memphis “tourist attraction.” Latura threatened the reporter. Latura even threatened the police. That’s when an officer fired five shots into Latura’s back.

This violent piece of Memphis history appears in a chapter titled “Lynching and Hate Crimes,” one chapter among many detailing the state’s epidemics, floods, tornadoes, ice storms, explosions, fires, airplane crashes, railroad accidents, riverboat disasters, race riots, and labor wars in a grim but readable reference work called Tennessee Tragedies: Natural, Technological, and Societal Disasters in the Volunteer State (The University of Tennessee Press).

The author, who has spent decades researching the worst in Tennessee history, is Allen R. Coggins, a former emergency management specialist with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

Is it fitting to call a compendium such as this a labor of love? Perhaps. Coggins “lovingly” dedicates Tennessee Tragedies to his wife. Coggins himself calls it a “laborious task [that] grew into an obsession.” But it’s also well-written, nicely designed, fully illustrated, and practically un-put-downable.

 

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