Thursday, March 09, 2017

Duel With the Devil by Paul Collins

Paul Collins is a working writer, a guy who writes interesting, usually historical and research-inspired non-fiction books and who has never (as far as I've noticed) hit that bestseller level. He's also almost exactly the same age as me, and has a couple of sons around the ages of my sons: we always like best the people who remind us of ourselves. So I've been a Collins reader for some time, previously reading and babbling about his books Banvard's Folly, Not Even Wrong, The Trouble With Tom, Sixpence House, The Book of William, and The Murder of the Century here.

Duel With the Devil was his new book for 2013; I'm starting to run behind with Collins as I am with so many other writers. (I think he already has another book out; it's sad when writers you like can write faster than you can read.) And it's in the same vein as his previous book, The Murder of the Century: it pulls a shocking murder story out of historical newspapers and other documents to present it new to a modern audience.

(Not at all unlike what Rick Geary has been doing in comic form in his Treasury of {insert era} Murder series, actually -- so this is a thing I've liked and burbled about for a long time from someone else as well.)

Duel picks up on a shocking event a good hundred years before the murder in Century -- the death of Elma Sands in New York City at the very end of 1799. She was a young Quaker woman living in a boardinghouse on Greenwich Street, and suspicion immediately fell on a young man in that same house, one Levi Weeks. Duel is divided into four parts -- the first two fill in the picture from before Elma's death, telling her story and Levi's, and the back half of the book covers Levi's trial for her murder and the verdict and its aftermath.

As the subtitle implies, the big draw here is that this case brought together two major political enemies: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Only four years later, they would duel and Burr would kill Hamilton, but, in the winter of 1800, they were on the same side of a courtroom in lower Manhattan, defending the brother of a top contractor in that growing young city (and, not less important, a huge creditor of the then-insolvent Burr).

Collins follows the pattern of Century here; he has a lot of historical documents to draw from to tell this story, and makes it all clear and compelling. Again, this isn't as idiosyncratic and quirky as his earlier books, but I know that quirky doesn't pay the bills. I wish Collins could have a brilliant, bestseller-filled career writing books like The Trouble With Tom, but I'm old enough to know that the world doesn't come close to my wishes in a million ways. The career Collins has is a solid one, and I hope some of the millions of people who are interested in Hamilton find this book and make their way to the rest of his work.

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