Literazzi – Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins

Published June 4, 2013

Published June 4, 2013

WOW!!!  Just…all kinds of wow!  Don’t even read this review!  Just do yourself a favor: go read this book!

Now that that’s out of the way…  Seriously, this book is spectacular.  I’m not usually a person to read historical non-fiction books, though I am entertained by certain genres of history.  For me, I like my murder mysteries/thrillers strictly fictional.  It just so happens I was browsing through the other sections of Kindle Deals when I came upon this title.  And what an eye-catcher, eh?  If not the lengthy title, then surely “Alexander Hamilton” and “Aaron Burr” and “teamed up” were enough to grab your attention.  I mean, I like to think that almost everyone knows the famous story of the deadly duel between Alexander Hamilton – one of our nation’s founding fathers – and Aaron Burr – our country’s third Vice President during the Thomas Jefferson administration – but perhaps I’m off the mark.  For those of you who don’t know, let me give you a brief run-down:

Hamilton and Burr were what you might refer to today as “frenemies”: their political, social, and occupational endeavors often brought them together, yet – though pleasant with each other – they were actually quite bitter rivals.  The rivalry had started long before, but came to boil during the 1804 election for governor of New York, which was won by Burr’s opponent, Morgan Lewis.  Mr. Lewis rallied with and was backed by Hamilton.  This was obviously a huge annoyance for Burr.  Then, Burr reads some gossip in a news article about how Hamilton was at some dinner party throwing mad shade at him.  Awwww HELL NAH!  Burr writes a strongly worded letter to Hamilton demanding and apology!  Hamilton responds with a letter to Burr, in which he plays dumb and claims he never said anything of the sort.  Psh!  This causes the rumbling pot to boil over.  Burr writes back to Hamilton one final time and insists he is a douche bag, and challenges Hamilton to a duel.  They traveled out to New Jersey (because dueling was outlawed in New York) with their witnesses, take their paces…  Point, shoot, BOOM!  Hammy drops dead.  After that, Burr is pretty much exiled because he killed a beloved man of Manhattan, as well as a key figure in the birth of a country that is just taking off.

There’s A LOT more to that interesting story that I urge you dig into.  It’s really fascinating!  But…

That’s not what this story is about.  This story is exactly as it’s stated in the title: it’s a story about the aforementioned, knuckle-headed politicians putting aside their differences to defend an innocent man from being wrongfully accused of murdering a young woman in 1800’s New York City.

Summary: (courtesy of goodreads.com) In the closing days of 1799, the United States was still a young republic.  Waging a fierce battle for its uncertain future were two political parties: the well-moneyed Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, and the populist Republicans, led by Aaron Burr. The two finest lawyers in New York, Burr and Hamilton were bitter rivals both in and out of the courtroom, and as the next election approached—with Manhattan likely to be the swing district on which the presidency would hinge—their  animosity reached a crescendo. Central to their dispute was the Manhattan water supply, which Burr saw not just as an opportunity to help a city devastated by epidemics but as a chance to heal his battered finances.
But everything changed when Elma Sands, a beautiful young Quaker woman, was found dead in Burr’s newly constructed Manhattan Well. The horrific crime quickly gripped the nation, and before long accusations settled on one of Elma’s suitors, handsome young carpenter Levi Weeks. As the enraged city demanded a noose be draped around the accused murderer’s neck, the only question seemed to be whether Levi would make it to trial or be lynched first.  The young man’s only hope was to hire a legal dream team.  And thus it was that New York’s most bitter political rivals and greatest attorneys did the unthinkable—they teamed up.

My thoughts: In the beginning of the book Collins does a wonderful job of depicting Manhattan in the late 18th century.  He describes everything from the way of life, the business, attire, the layout of the city…  He discusses – in great detail and length – the yellow fever epidemics sweeping major cities, particularly Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.  As this is the first thing read in the book, I found myself wondering if I’d made the right decision in purchasing this book.  While interesting enough, it didn’t really have anything to do with the subject matter, other than aid in description of the era.  That, and totally gross me out!  But, I believe setting the scene is an important key to a good book, so I kept going.  Chapter 4 – “The Black Veil” – is when the story starts to get interesting, as this is when the young Quaker girl, Elma Sands, goes missing from her boarding house.  By chapter 7 – “The Glooms of Conscious Night” – I was flying through the pages.  When I finally got to the actual trial I could not wait to find out what these two notable men of history had come up with as a defense for Levi Weeks.  For one, Collins doesn’t tell the reader how or why these two men came together on this case in the first place.  I mean, not only were they rivals, but neither of them really practiced criminal law.  I’m wondering if there just wasn’t any information about how they came together on this case available…  Two, he doesn’t go into as much detail about their preparation for defense as he does the prosecution’s – which was led by Assistant Attorney General, Cadwallader Colden (yes, that’s his name).  But – for me – it was a smart move, because it left a little mystery when it came time for Week’s trial.  Collins made Weeks looked doomed to a guilty verdict – a guilty verdict that comes with a mandatory death sentence.  This is definitely the crescendo of the book, and everything beyond is simply aftermath (Collins does discuss the duel between Hamilton and Burr).  Though the excitement slowly fades, he does bring out a few surprises that kept me reading until the end.

Conclusion:  Collins does a spectacular job of writing this book as if it were fiction.  This book reads like a novel, yet is most certainly true.  One review I read suggests that this books is partially fictionalized, which I suppose is true in a way.  I’m assuming the reviewer was referring to the some of the settings in the book and/or the directly spoken dialogue of the characters.  But, you’ll notice at the end Collins lists TONS of sources – letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, historical recordings, almanacs, etc.  So to me, the outlining of the story is fictionalized out of truth, in a way.  Does that make sense?  Does that count as fiction?  One thing that is not fictionalized is the actual trial, as it was the first ever fully documented murder trial in the U.S.

I would recommend this book to anyone, no matter your genre preference.  It’s a great murder mystery/political thriller, and a pretty quick read.  A piece of advice (and maybe it’s just me), I would definitely make a list of people and who they are as you read the book.  Collins will mention a name briefly in passing and you won’t hear about them again.  Then, BOOM!!  Five chapters later they’re an important and crucial part of the story.  There are A LOT of names, so take notes, or you’ll find yourself going back and forth trying to figure out who is who.

 

Here are some quotes from the book that I found interesting or

thought-provoking:

The end of the pestilence had come just in time for the city’s Irish immigrants to indulge in their peculiar love of Halloween.  Living down by the muddy docks, they’d been hit worst of all by the fever.  Toasting loudly and singing lilting airs, they gathered that evening to roast nuts and apples over open fires, and drank whiskey in the graveyard as the autumn night of All Hallow’s Eve closed over them and their fellow Manhattanites.  They had survived.  (Ch. 2 – “A Boardinghouse By Candlelight”; on the end of the epidemic season)

Word raced down Wall Street as another letter from Alexandria was opened to reveal the same stunning news about the sixty-seven-year-old statesman: “He mad his exit last night between the hours of 11 and 12 after a short but painful illness of 23 hours…  We are all to close our houses, and act as if we should do if one of our own family had departed. (Ch. 4 – “The Black Veil”; on George Washington’s death)

“I guess she has gone to be married,” sighed Elizabeth.  A rather scandalous theory, to be sure, but young women were known to resort to running off – particularly when decency demanded that they do so.  (Ch. 4 – “The Black Veil”; on why women sometimes disappeared, as if it were an unspoken normalcy)

New York was still small enough that any citizen could easily cross paths with the founders of the young nation.  But watching them all gravely walking in procession was to behold the assembled might of the reborn city and nation before one’s eyes.  These were ambitious and brilliant men – powerful men – the sort who might hold a simpler man’s life in their hands.  (Ch. 5 “The Mystery in the Meadow”; on the funeral procession of George Washington)

Medical texts insisted such women could not claim rape as an excuse for having risked the procedure: Pregnancy was seen as a proof of willingness, for a number of doctors persisted in believing that a rape could not produce a child.  (Ch. 6 – “Some Person or Persons as Yet Unknown”; on abortion)

Elma Sands seized the imagination of writers, who conjured a forbidden romance: The beautiful young girl dressed in bridal clothes, taken by a fatal love into the fields beyond the snowy streets of the city; the muff, found floating in the water by an innocent child and given as a gift; the body, hidden mere feet beneath Lispenard’s Meadow, suspended in the cold and dark well that was to have brought new life to New York.  (Ch. 7 – “The Glooms of Conscious Night”; on the media frenzy of the Elma Sands case)

It was at Richmond Hill that young Burr and Hamilton first surveyed the great expanse of Manhattan and wondered how to wrest control of the country from the British.  Now – as rival lawyers and politicians – they wondered how they might wrest that control from each other.  (Ch.8 – “Whatever Is Boldly Asserted”; on the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr)

Burr had a reputation for harrying foes with blizzards of appeals and motions, and when the occasion called for it, the colonel’s attitude toward legal processes could possess a marvelous flexibility.  The law, he once explained, “is whatever is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained.”  (Ch. 8 – “Whatever Is Boldly Asserted”; on Aaron Burr’s views of the law)

New York was the swing state in the upcoming presidential election – and Manhattan was the swing district in New York State.  Control the city, and you controlled the 1800 presidential race.  (Ch.9 – “A Perfect Monster”; on the election of 1800)

The overwhelmingly mercantile jury was no coincidence.  Jurors had to be men between the ages of twenty-one and sixty, and be taxpaying landowners holding property worth at least $250 – nearly a year’s wages for a common laborer.  The jury box was what women and the poor faced, not what they sat in.  (Ch. 11 – “The American Phenomena”; on jury selection during the 18the century)

Vice President Burr now found himself at the middle of the most shocking homicide case in America since – well, since the last one that he’d also been at the center of.  (Ch. 19 – “Duel at Dawn”; on the aftermath of his duel with Alexander Hamilton)

 

 

 

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Literatazzi – The Dinner by Herman Koch

herman-koch-the-dinner-646The Dinner by Herman Koch
Published: February 12, 2013

Summary:  It’s a lovely summer evening in Amsterdam when brothers Serge – a prominent political figure – and his brother Paul (the book’s narrator) gather with their wives at an upscale restaurant for dinner.  Everything seems quite quaint at first, but we soon learn after a few courses that there is a deeper reason these two couples have come together.  They each have a 15-year-old son, both of whom were involved in a violent, criminal act.  As the dinner winds down, the climax builds until both couples finally address the grave situation at hand.  The ultimate question is, how far will a parent go to protect their child?

My Thoughts:  I was very excited to read this book.  It is described by The Wall Street Journal as “a European Gone Girl“, which hooked me because I loved Gone Girl.  As I began reading, I wasn’t instantly invested.  There’s a lot of background story, which is fine, but I think there’s also a lot of unnecessary musings from the narrator.  OK, I thought.  If I keep reading this will get more and more interesting.  It doesn’t.  It seems to drag on and on, and the whole time you’re just growing to hate the characters.  Finally, almost halfway through book you learn a little bit about the crime the boys committed.  From there, more dragging and more and more mindless musings.  When the heinous act is finally put out for discussion between the couples the book is 3/4 finished.  Now we’re getting to the good stuff, I thought.  When book finally comes to a conclusion (IF you could even call that ending a conclusion) I was left puzzled by my lack of feeling about what I just read.

Why didn’t I feel more strongly one way or the other about this book, I thought. I mean, I liked the story, but I put it down in the middle somewhere for about a month because it bored me so much.  I like that the author was able to elicit emotions of hatred for the characters because it seems to me that was his obvious intention.  But, I didn’t like that there was nothing and no one that I could relate to.  Actually, the one person I found myself rooting for was the manager of the restaurant and he’s not even an essential character to the story!  The theme of this book is a deep one, but one that can easily be found in better books.  I thought the setting for the book – in a restaurant over a five-course meal – was interesting and unique, but I found it extremely hard to believe that anyone involved in this matter would choose to discuss the situation in public.  Especially, if one of those people were a prominent political figure.  I wanted more from the ending, but by then I was just ready to finish the damn book!

Conclusion:  I think this story had a lot of potential, but for me, it fell short on all accounts.  Maybe the problem is that I expected it to be something it’s not (Gone Girl).  Maybe I built it up too much in my head and that’s why I am disappointed.  But, even after I mentally separated the two, there’s no way I would pick the book up again, and no way I would recommend it to my friends.  In the end, the book was lacking something, and I just can’t put my finger on exactly what that “something” is.

**UPDATE** (8/9/13) – After having some time to digest my thoughts on this book, only one thing changes: I would recommend this book to other people.  However, my recommendation is purely selfish.  I would like to get a different perspective on this book.  I would want to know how other people felt after reading this book and what they thought of it.  So, in that respect, I would recommend the book to people.  Maybe with a warning…?