When there may be mysteries darker than murder

Yesterday, BookPeople’s Mystery People blog published my article on murder and mystery, which came out of Anahuac becoming available at BookPeople earlier this year. I truly appreciate the opportunity to contribute to Austin’s prestigious independent bookstore in this way.

I like BookPeople for a lot of reasons, not least of which that it’s just a short and relaxing walk from where I live. BookPeople has been supportive of my efforts to market my books and those of other local Austin authors. The Writer’s League of Texas uses BookPeople’s meeting room for their meetings. All-in-all, BookPeople is a great model for an indie book store.

I wrote the article for BookPeople to say thanks for all of their help and also to explain why my idea of a murder mystery doesn’t include a description of heavy violence or gore.This paragraph, in particular, captured a lot of what I was thinking about as I was writing the book, and once I began to see people interact with it:

Most of us abhor violence. Yet mystery, especially when it involves murder, is one of our favorite literary genres. The “why” of its popularity is not so hard to understand when one accepts that the violence and death in a murder mystery are usually purely fictional. We shiver in anticipation as the roller coaster reaches the top of the hill, because the exhilaration of the bottom dropping out is “safe.” Mystery lets us enter into the violent world of murder without actually being in danger. The journey is aided by the fact that our imaginations don’t—in the moment, at least—distinguish between real danger and the imagined.

If you are a fan of mysteries I encourage you to subscribe to the Mystery People blog. There are great insights from mystery writers, including interviews and remembrances, as well as reviews on a whole range of mysteries. It’s a great resource for those of you looking for which whodunnit to read next.

Morgan's Point City Limit

Did Emily Morgan, the “Yellow Rose of Texas,” win the war?

I like to include a short Author’s Note in all the books in my “A Texas Story” series, providing a bit of historical information about the setting for the book. In Anahuac, I described the dust up that young lawyer, William Travis started with the Commander of the Mexican military’s Fort Anahuac in 1832 that predated the Texas Revolution by four years. Travis wound up as the Commander of the Alamo that cost he and his men their lives.

The Author’s Note in the first book of the series, Morgan’s Point, summarizes the story of the Texas Revolution against Mexico and ends with the Battle of San Jacinto that created the Republic of Texas. The battle occurred on April 21, 1836. The victory over a far superior Mexican Army changed the world, not just Texas. Did the “Yellow Rose of Texas” really win the Texas Revolution? That is up to you to decide. Like so many other stories of Texas, the facts are muddled. The legend probably has as much chance of being true as any other of the stories about this 18-minute battle.  The one fact that is clear is that the world is a very different place because of it. As the 182nd anniversary of the battle approaches, I offer the prologue for your consideration. My books are available at BookPeople in Austin and on Amazon.


Author’s Note

The flag of Mexico flew over Texas in 1836. The Anglo settlers who legally immigrated to Texas from the United States entered under agreements between land impresarios and the government of Mexico. The vast expanses of Texas and the limited presence of the government of Mexico allowed many additional settlers to cross the northern river boundaries illegally for a new life.
As their numbers grew, the Anglos chafed under a legal system that did not recognize rights that the Anglos had left behind in the United States. The disputes, real or imagined, stirred the Texicans to action. Some have speculated that the presence of men like Sam Houston, a former Governor of the state of Tennessee, was part of a more sinister plot to allow the United States to seize Texas from Mexico.

Speculation aside, a convention was held at Washington-on-the-Brazos to form an independent Republic of Texas. A declaration of independence was signed on March 2, 1836. As might be expected, the President of Mexico, Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, took exception. Santa Anna, as he was known, was already marching his armies to Texas to vanquish the upstart Texicans.

After crossing the Mexican interior, Santa Anna marched his large army to San Antonio, where they surrounded a vastly outnumbered garrison at the Alamo. It took thirteen days for a superior Mexican force to overrun the old church and kill the 180 or so Texican defenders. Those who died included several Mexican citizens who sided with the Texicans. Next, a portion of Santa Anna’s army went to Goliad where they surrounded a 300-man Texican army. The Texicans’ reward for surrender was execution.

Santa Anna was flush with these victories when he set off on a mission to capture the newly formed government of Texas. As fate would have it, Santa Anna’s army barely missed capturing the Republic’s interim President David G. Burnet and his family at a town called New Washington. New Washington was located on a peninsula called Morgan’s Point that juts into Galveston Bay. As Burnet and his family rowed away, a gallant Mexican officer commanded his troops not to fire because of the presence of ladies in the boat.

One person captured at Morgan’s Point was Emily Morgan. Emily was far from being part of the new revolutionary government of Texas. She was the former indentured servant of James Morgan for whom the peninsula was named. Emily, a Mulatto woman, was said to be fair of face. Rather than being a prisoner of war, she was conscripted by the Mexican army for the pleasure of Santa Anna. Ms. Morgan would also be known as the Yellow Rose of Texas after the battle to come.
With Emily Morgan in tow, the Generalissimo turned his gaze to Sam Houston and the last Texican army in the field. Sam Houston’s army had been engaged in a defensive flight across Texas. Some had named it derisively the “runaway scrape.” Depending on which group of Texican soldiers one asked, Sam Houston was either a worthless coward or a brilliant military strategist. The Texicans had suffered grievous defeats at the Alamo and Goliad. Sam Houston would fight when fate and geography gave him an opportunity for success.

Houston sprang into action upon learning that Santa Anna was nearby at New Washington and that President Burnet had escaped. Houston had his chance. Santa Anna’s forces were now split into three widely separated armies. Sam Houston drove his men in a desperate race to San Jacinto.

San Jacinto, a tiny village, was located at the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River near the site of Lynch’s Ferry. The ferry was a focal point for all routes of escape for the Texican civilian population fleeing Texas for haven in Louisiana and the United States across the Sabine River. Some said that Sam Houston was fleeing Texas along with the civilians. Lynch’s Ferry continues in operation at the site today.

No matter which of the theories was true, the destinies of two armies were sealed. Sam Houston and Santa Anna found themselves camped less than a mile apart at San Jacinto. Santa Anna’s camp lay hard against Peggy’s Lake. The inopportune location of Santa Anna’s camp was met with disbelief by the professional soldiers who commanded his troops. Sam Houston’s back was to the waters of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River. Like knife fighters with their left arms tied together, it was clear that one of these armies would not get out alive.

The tides of not only Texas history but of the world’s history were changed in a merciless eighteen-minute battle on the low-slung salt grass marsh. The silence of the quiet swamp was broken by a sudden barrage of cannons, rifles and pistols. A late afternoon charge by Sam Houston’s army drove the Mexicans into the shallow muck of Peggy’s Lake. The Texican Cavalry was into the Mexican camp with drawn sabers before an alarm could be sounded. The terrified Mexican troops raced to escape from the Texican force who screamed, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!”

The irregular Texican army, set on avenging massacres at Goliad and the Alamo, butchered the remnants of the Mexican army mired knee deep in the mud. Their screams of “Mi, no Alamo, Mi, no Goliad,” only inflamed the Texicans. Peggy’s Lake was blood red by nightfall. A lucky few were taken captive or fled into the countryside.

One of those who fled was Generalissimo Santa Anna. Santa Anna, at least by legend, was said to have been entertaining Emily Morgan in his tent at the start of the battle. Santa Anna’s attentions were so diverted by the Yellow Rose, that a Texican victory was assured.

Captured two days later, Santa Anna was taken to a large oak tree where Sam Houston lay recuperating from an ankle wound. Sam Houston did not give in to the natural urges of his army. Rather than hang Santa Anna from the oak tree, he required him to sign an order directing the commanders of two larger Mexican forces advancing toward Houston’s army to withdraw back across the Rio Grande. With the stroke of Santa Anna’s pen, a new Republic of Texas was at least temporarily assured.

Peacock at Mayfield Park

The S.S. Hangover at the Contemporary Austin

You have to know the story of Clara Driscoll to fully appreciate the location of the Contemporary Austin art exhibit Kathy and I attended last Sunday. Laguna Gloria is Driscoll’s former home on Lake Austin. Clara Driscoll was a larger than life individual, whose legions of accomplishments included saving the Alamo from demolition and writing a Broadway show. Her father, Robert Driscoll, Sr. and mother Catherine McGrath Duggan Driscoll owned among many other assets, the 83,000 acre Driscoll Ranch just outside of Corpus Christi in South Texas. Wikipedia has an extensive discussion of her education and life accomplishments. She was a Texas original, educated in New York City and Europe. If you don’t know about her, it’s worth reading the Wikipedia article.

In 1917, Driscoll and her husband purchased 28 acres near Mount Bonnell on the Colorado River. At the time the property was five miles outside of Austin. The property was bounded on one side by the Colorado River, now Lake Austin and on another by a tributary called Taylor Slough. The slough feed into a small lake adjacent to Driscoll’s mansion before it flows into Lake Austin. They called their estate Laguna Gloria. The property was first owned by Stephen F. Austin. This is one of the most prized properties in Texas. The beautiful grounds and Italian influenced mansion are now a Contemporary Austin art gallery.

Last Sunday, Kathy and I attended an art exhibition performed on the small lake. In my younger years I would have questioned whether the performance was art. Thankfully, I’m not so strict these days and the SS Hangover exhibit was particularly enjoyable. The waters of Laguna Gloria were never used for better purpose than the surreal scene of a Scandinavian sailing craft (actually propelled by a secret motor) plying the tranquil waters of the lagoon. A brass orchestra played calming beautiful music, and Kathy and I were transfixed on the shore. Even the cold temps of the day disappeared for a time. We recommend you consider it.

Plus we recommend a stop over to the Gardens and the free ranging peacocks of Mayfield Park right next door. Kids and grandkids would love to see the peacocks, ponds and beauty of the park’s nature trails down to the water.