On August 14, 1944, Lucien Carr, a friend of William S. Burroughs from St. Louis, stabbed a man named David Kammerer with a Boy Scout knife and dropped the body into the Hudson River. Kammerer had long fawned over the younger Carr, making romantic advances that, for a time, it seemed Carr didn't mind. But after six years as the older man's protege, either Carr had had enough or he was forced to defend himself. The next day, his clothes stained with blood, he went to his friends Bill Burroughs and Jack Kerouac for help. Doing so, he caught them up in the crime. The two were arrested for failing to inform the police, and a few months later, they were drawn to the crime in a different way.
Something about the murder, with its echoes of Verlaine and Rimbaud, captivated the Beats. Burroughs and Kerouac decided to collaborate on a fictionalization of the events of the summer of 1944, a crime novel in the style of Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain. They alternated chapters, Burroughs writing as Will Dennison, a bartender steeped in the criminal underworld and Kerouac as Mike Ryko, a hard-drinking merchant marine in dirty chinos. For the title, they settled on a line from a news report they had heard one night while sitting in a bar near Columbus Circle. A circus in Hartford, Connecticut, had caught fire and the radio announcer ended his piece by stating 'and the hippos were boiled in their tanks.'
At this point, the writers were far from famous. Burroughs had written next to nothing, and Kerouac, though he had churned out hundreds of thousands of words, had met with little success - it would be five years before his first novel was published. When they submitted the novel to publishers, it was rejected by all, and sat unpublished for decades.
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is an incomparable artifact from the early days of the Beats, a fascinating piece of American literary history, and a remarkable window into the personal lives of two hugely influential writers at the very beginning of their careers. It is also an engaging novel, a hypnotic descent into lust and obsession, drugs and alcohol, art and outsized dreams.