After contractually agreeing to pen his fiction debut, The Shroud of the Thwacker, actor/comic/ writer Chris Elliott felt momentary elation followed by lingering panic. "I remember thinking, 'I can't fucking write a novel,'" he says.
Fortunately for Elliott, who signs copies of his tome on Wednesday, October 19, at the Tattered Cover, he was proven wrong. "I had a great time," he recalls. "I wanted each day to come so I could jump back into that world again."
And what a world it is. Shroud takes place in 1882, when a fiend known as Jack the Jolly Thwacker is slaying prostitutes and then arranging their entrails into the shape of bouffant hairdos or birthday cakes. Charged with investigating these nefarious offenses are police chief Caleb Spencer, plucky reporter Liz Smith, Mayor Teddy Roosevelt and the author himself, who time-travels into even more danger than he experienced starring in the mega-flop film Cabin Boy.
The bizarro plot sends up The Alienist, a 1994 Caleb Carr novel that turned Roosevelt into a crimebuster, as well as Patricia Cornwell's 2002 offering Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed. Yet Shroud focuses more on yuks than facts. The book is thick with jokes because, Elliott reveals, "In my mind, if you're going to write a funny book, you have to attempt to make everything funny."
The onetime David Letterman regular hasn't given up on his movie career -- in the forthcoming First Time Caller, he portrays "Eugene the Gator Guy" -- but he's already started his next novel. "I'd love to make my nut doing this," he admits. Still, he's under no illusion that his book will be greeted with universal acceptance.
"People run either hot or cold with me, and I like it that way," he notes. "I think that means whatever I'm doing at any particular moment is either fantastic or shit."