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  • The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders by James Presley
  • John M. Dempsey
The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders. By James Presley. (New York: Pegasus Crime, 2014. Pp. 397. Illustrations, notes, bibliography.)

Heinous crimes become the stuff of legend in small cities. And yet, very often, the details become hazy as time goes on. So it is with the 1946 serial killings in the border town of Texarkana, which straddles the state lines of Texas and Arkansas. Historian and Texarkana native James Presley grew up hearing tales of the lovers-lane murders, and in The Phantom Killer, Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror, he has masterfully gathered the arcane facts surrounding the crimes while preserving the story’s mythic quality.

Presley’s account is rich in detail, bringing the postwar culture of Texarkana back to life. Describing a date between the first two victims, Jimmy Hollis and Mary Jeanne Larey (who both survived), Presley writes:

A trip to the Paramount (theater) was almost a formal event, the men wearing [End Page 94] coats and ties, the women in high heels and the best dresses, sometimes even gloves. The best place in town, for a fifty-cent admission fee. Unlike the other ‘white’ theaters, the Paramount featured a ‘Colored’ entrance at the side, next to an alley, that led up to a segregated portion of the balcony.

Even Presley’s source notes at the end of the book are rendered engagingly, providing what amounts to a bonus chapter. His lean writing propels the story from episode to episode, maintaining a feeling of expectancy throughout the 350-plus pages. The appearance of a youthful H. Ross Perot in the story brings a smile. The final third of Presley’s story provides a fascinating look at the circumstantial conviction of a suspect, Youell Swinney, his release from prison after twenty-seven years, and the clearing of the case “by exception” after Swinney’s death.

The Phantom Killer is handsomely produced, with a generous serving of period photos midway through the book. The story of the Texarkana serial killings has been loosely told before in a 1970s movie, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” starring Texas acting great Ben Johnson. Presley’s gripping account would provide outstanding source material for a new screenplay. But until then, his vivid, novelistic story will more than suffice.

John M. Dempsey
Texas A&M University, Commerce


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pp. 94-95
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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