The Infamous Harry Hayward

By Shawn Francis Peters. (University of Minnesota Press, 290 pages, $18.95.)

When the papers call it "The Crime of the Century" and it's 1894, you know there's been plenty of competition. It was murder — rare, but not unusual. The mastermind was a sociopathic rake in search of easy money — surely not the first time that had happened in the 19th century. What made the crime so lurid, so fascinating, to the citizens of the Twin Cities?

Three things. The victim: Kitty Gang, a single businesswoman who made dresses for the social elite. The mastermind: Harry Hayward, a charismatic roué from a good family who seemed to exert strange magnetic power over weaker minds. The publicists: the vigorous press of the day, which covered the crime and trial in exhausting detail, from the discovery of the body to the last gasps of the man at the end of the rope.

Shawn Francis Peters recounts the tale in "The Infamous Harry Hayward: A True Account of Murder and Mesmerism in Gilded Age Minneapolis," a rattling yarn, made vivid by conversations excerpted from court documents and confessions. The crime may seem remote to us in the 21st century, but the building where the victim, killer and murder-plot architect lived still stands on 13th and Hennepin, and the building where she worked was still on Nicollet Mall in the early 1990s. The murder took place near Lake Calhoun, which is still there (albeit renamed).

We may have forgotten the crime, but for a while the entire nation read about a "fiend" whom a detective no less than William Pinkerton himself called "one of the greatest criminals the world has ever seen." He comes to life — alarmingly so — in this account, and you'll learn about how the town has changed, and also how the world of 1894 Minneapolis seems remarkably familiar.

Peters will be speak at 7 p.m. April 20 at Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., and at 11 a.m. April 21 at Scout & Morgan Books in Cambridge, Minn.


The Parking Lot Attendant

By Nafkote Tamirat. (Henry Holt, 225 pages, $25.)

Young Boston writer Nafkote Tamirat's debut novel has problems. It continually flies off into tiny tangents that are left hanging like fraying silk. It's often hard to tell who's speaking in the snappy dialogues that make up most of the book. And the plot is so confusing that even at book's end, when a dramatic chase has you completely hooked, it's hard to say what is happening and why.

And yet it's a captivating story, and we come to care deeply for the unnamed narrator, a lonely, brave teenage girl who falls under the spell of a charming, mysteriously rich parking lot attendant named Ayale, who, like the teen, is a member of Boston's Ethiopian-American community. Ayale, who has a group of admirers the teen calls his disciples, becomes a second father to the girl, whose own father (she has no mother — or does she?) is aloof and distant.

But things get messy as she begins to deify him and to be attracted to him. "While Ayale was a great many things, a good man was not one of them," she says near book's end. Both Ayale and the girl's father have dark secrets that will come to the fore in dramatic fashion. We follow their adventures on gritty Boston streets with curiosity, knowing from the first chapter that the girl and her father eventually will end up on a mysterious island that is a failed and dangerous utopia.

The novel is both a coming-of-age story and a lament for an immigrant community that is not quite at home in old country or new. While this book would have benefited from a careful rewrite or two, it is nonetheless a worthwhile and spooky read.