‘Duel with the Devil’ is about so much more — and less

Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery is a headline that is nearly longer than the story it has to tell. For all its length, the title is a bit misleading as to the overall subject of this historical nonfiction, as the actual murder trial is but a small fraction of Paul Collins’ otherwise well-researched and interesting work.

Collins does a very good job of giving the reader a sense of time and place — in this case, New York City at the close of the 18th century. He explains the ways in which the legal system of the day was so heavily weighted toward the prosecution that to be accused of a crime was virtually to be convicted. The concept of “beyond a reasonable doubt” had yet to become part of the foundation of criminal justice. All of which means that once Levi Weeks, a carpenter who living in the same boardinghouse as the murder victim, becomes the target of public accusation, he is all but fitted for the gallows. Enter Hamilton and Burr to save the day.

The problem is that the trial itself takes just two days and the jury deliberates for less than 30 minutes before returning its verdict, leaving little for Collins to gin up into a legal thriller. And that’s just one of the anticlimactic episodes I found, which included the rather prosaic reason that such sworn political enemies as Hamilton (staunch Federalist) and Burr (equally rabid Republican) found themselves on the same side of a case (the common ground being their complete inability to pay their debts, leaving them obliged to Mr. Weeks’ uncle). Further, following Weeks’ acquittal no one else was ever charged, though Collins attempts to “solve” the crime by unearthing some apparently little-known facts about another of the boardinghouse’s roomers.

Of course, with a title like Duel with the Devil, you had to figure that the famous duel between Hamilton and Burr would get some attention and it does — and again, while this section is well-researched, well-written and interesting, it has zippo to do with the putative subject of the book.

In short, then, I recommend Duel with the Devil for anyone interested in the early years of the United States, or the history of the legal system. Just be aware that the crime and trial of the title are the least of this book’s most interesting aspects.


‘Transatlantic’ has a wandering spirit

Reading this book was like riding a roller coaster of emotions. Prior to claiming it off the library hold list I was excited about tackling it, having read some very positive reviews. Then I started reading it. My excitement diminished page by page as I struggled to understand why the story jumped around in time and place, from Newfoundland after World War I to Ireland in the 1840s to Missouri in the late 19th century. Each stop seemed completely unrelated to the one that came before and the one that followed. I began to wonder how on earth this disjointed mess had earned such lavish praise.

Then, finally, I realized that what had seemed to be completely unrelated chapters were actually tied together through the family lines of Lily Duggan, who was a maid in a fancy Dublin home when former slave Frederick Douglass comes to Ireland to drum up support for the American abolition movement. Each chapter had somewhere at its heart a descendant of Lily, from the Civil War mother who helps her husband run an ice-cutting empire in the American Midwest to the journalist who chronicles one of the first transatlantic flights to the woman who loses everything in contemporary Ireland.

Once I found the common thread, my interest and appreciation for the book picked up. I enjoyed most the chapters devoted to Douglass’ sojourn in Ireland and a visit more than century later by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, trying desperately to bring Catholics and Protestants to a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. None of the stories end in triumph; the most we can hope for, McCann implies, is a sense of quiet satisfaction and no expectation of glory. Many of the characters do not achieve even that minor grace, and my heart ached for some of their stories and lives.

Although by the end I was appreciating McCann’s cleverness and deft interweaving of timelines and placelines, I just can’t give this book my highest recommendation. I don’t need or want to be hit over the head with an anvil by an author trying to convey the themes he will explore, but to read roughly a third of a book without having any idea where it’s going seemed a shade too opaque for any but the most dedicated English major used to parsing meaning from prose.