Reinventing Baby Doe and Riding Scared With Murph: Two Spooky New Novels

Just in time for Halloween, two novels dealing with eerie Colorado themes are haunting local bookstores. One is a fictionalized channeling of one of the state's most celebrated and puzzling historical figures, while the other is a semi-comic mystery dealing with seances, Riverside Cemetery, cab driving and other scary topics. 

Donna Baier Stein's The Silver Baron's Wife (Serving House Books) is a fresh take on the much-recounted rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Lizzie "Baby Doe" Tabor, whose scandalous romance with silver tycoon Horace Tabor made her one of the wealthiest women in late-nineteenth-century America — until her dreams collapsed with the silver market, leaving her to live out her last days as an impoverished hermit in a one-room shack, hoping to revive her late husband's Matchless Mine. 

Baby Doe's tale has been the stuff of opera, film and numerous biographies — at least one of which was presented in the first person, as Stein does here with her historical novel. Stein has clearly done her research and knows she's retracing some pretty well-covered ground, but she manages to transform Baby Doe from her usual role as canny bimbo to a kind of proto-feminist, fiercely striving to make her way in a man's world. The historical Baby Doe did, in fact, work in her feckless first husband's mine, at a time when few women dared to venture underground; Stein suggests she forged a mystic bond with mining — "It was another world down there, magically distant from daily woes" — that persisted throughout her life. 
Yet Stein's Baby Doe is also oddly sanitized; there's no mention, for example, of Jake Sandelowsky, whom many of her biographers believe to have supported her financially (and possibly gotten her pregnant) between first hubbie Harvey Doe and her time with Horace. Her final three decades in grinding poverty and increasing isolation, during which she scribbled voluminous accounts of her dreams and religious visions, also get short shrift, as if a whiff of genuine madness would somehow diminish this idealized heroine. Some readers may find Stein's treatment poignant and persuasive, but others may suspect the historical novelist has shortchanged us on the history a bit. 
Otherworldliness of a different order is the subject of Devil's Night (Running Meter Press) by Gary Reilly, the eighth in a series of posthumously published novels about a hapless Denver cab driver named Brendan Murphy. Reilly, a onetime Denver cabbie himself, wrote more than two dozen novels but never tried to publish any of them before his death in 2011 of cancer, at the age of 61. Now they're getting a gradual rollout, and this latest installment in the "Asphalt Warrior" series finds Murph once again getting sucked into the problems of his customers — in this case, some annoying teens who are dabbling in seances right around Halloween. 

As with earlier books in the series, Murph's wisecracks, obsession with pop culture, observations about the Denver area — Globeville is the kind of place "where you might expect to find Gig Young wandering around wondering how he got back to the 1930s when he just left his 1960 sports car to be serviced in a gas station down the road" — and frequent digressions tend to mask the general thinness of the plot. In Reilly's cabbie books, it's more about the ride — with Murph talking your ear off and pointing out the sights — than the destination.

In some ways, Devil's Night is a historical novel, too. What may be most striking about the Murph books, even as the series draws closer to the present day, is how strongly they contrast with the many changes in the growing metroplex in recent years. In Reilly's world, Denver's traffic is still pretty light most of the time, you can catch a movie in Larimer Square at a cinema called The Flicker (not The Flick, for some reason), and there's no Uber, Lyft or A train to compete with Murph's trips to DIA. The city he's describing no longer exists, any more than the Leadville of Baby Doe's time. 

Devil's Night will get a ghostly sendoff at 6 p.m. Saturday, October 29, at the Tattered Cover LoDo, 1628 16th Street.  For more information, go to the Asphalt Warrior website. 

A final aside: Although it's not a novel, one other newly released plunge into the mystical with a local connection deserves mention. Denver author Joe Nigg, an authority on mythological creatures, has come out with The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast (University of Chicago Press), an epic journey through the many versions of this much-reincarnated bird, from the tales of ancient Rome through medieval times to the days of Harry Potter. The book's focus is on the way the phoenix and its surrounding symbolism has been used by various cultures (including our own), and it's primarily intended for a scholarly audience — but it's an impressive piece of research that happens to be as accessible as it is comprehensive. Nigg, who knew Gary Reilly and was a student of posthumously famous novelist John Williams, is an entertaining and pellucid writer (I'm a big fan of his coffee-table tome on sea monsters) as well as a reliable guide to matters arcane, obscure and utterly fascinating. 

Nigg will be signing The Phoenix at the Colfax Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue, at 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 19.
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast