A Spy Named Orphan: the Enigma of Donald MacLean by Roland Philipps

Another volume of Cold War riches from recently declassified files!  This entry follows the life of Donald McLean, one of the Cambridge Four Five.  Written by an insider, Philipps is the grandson of Roger Makins, former boss of Donald MacLean and the last person from the Foreign Office to see him before he disappeared and defected, A Spy Named Orphan is a sympathetic portrait of MacLean as a true believer whose alcoholism and personal difficulties may be traced to his split loyalties to Britain and the Soviet Union. MacLean is the star of this book, unlike others, in which he plays second fiddle to Kim Philby.  

Philipps departs from the argument made by S. J. Hamrick in Deceiving the Deceivers (2004)  that MI6 Knew about MacLean from 1949 and used him (and Philby) as a conduit of disinformation to the Soviets. Both books rely heavily on the Venona cables for evidence, but come to very different conclusions. Philipps contends that MacLean was successful in hiding his activities up until a few months before his defection, reverting to earlier arguments that the clubbiness of the British Intelligence Services blinded them to several spies right under their noses and that, combined with their unwillingness to look foolish again after Fuchs and several other debacles on both sides of the Atlantic, allowed MacLean to escape with Burgess in 1951.

Hamrick writes that we will likely never know for sure and because the principles have passed away and there are still classified documents that are unavailable, he is correct. Philipps, though, did have access to some documents declassified in 2015 as well as the personal papers of Donald MacLean’s brother Alan.  Hamrick’s argument rests largely on supposition about what is missing from the historical record and the motivation of the British Security Services for keeping mum. What Philipps gives us is a portrait of a tortured soul who spied because he couldn’t stand the rigid class society he lived in.  

Unfortunately, the sheer volume and type of secrets (atomic!) that MacLean passed during the years from 1938-1948 makes it very difficult to sympathize.  Philipps also seems to think that MacLean’s raging alcoholism did not keep him from doing both his diplomatic and espionage jobs very efficiently.  If true, the reader wonders what might have happened if MacLean had applied himself to improving Britain’s policies rather than giving its secrets to the enemy. Philipps tries to reconcile the depth of MacLean’s treachery by reminding the reader that the USSR was a wartime ally.  Sure, but Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler, too. And the political purges and Lubyanka disappearances, of even his handlers, seem not to have caused Donald to question his loyalty to the Communist cause. Philipps tries to make MacLean seem ideologically pure, and it is true that  Communism as an idea had been popular all over in the 1930s, but the Soviet incarnation, especially under Stalin, cannot possibly have been what the dreamers of the Depression had in mind. Definitely not a workers’ paradise.

This reader can only see MacLean as an anti-hero.  Flawed and destructive, but not completely without redeeming qualities. It is a shame, really, that what many of his contemporaries praised as foreign policy genius was wasted in treason and awash in liquor.  Philipps claims that he was animated by a desire for world peace.  As a senior official in the Foreign Office he could have had a seat at the table to make that a reality. What might the world have become if MacLean and other powerful people had worked as hard for their countries and by extension, the world, as they did against them?

Though meandering at times, A Spy Named Orphan is a mostly readable account of Donald MacLean’s life. Perhaps a bit too admiring of him for this reader’s taste, nevertheless it is well-researched and includes personal anecdotes and details about his relationship with his American wife, Melinda, than are in other, similar sources. MacLean himself was betrayed by Melinda once the two were in Moscow–she took up for a time with Philby, a notorious womanizer. I guess sometimes what goes around actually does come around.

Fallen Founder: the life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg (2007)

Isenberg is probably more famous for White Trash (2016), but this 2007 volume is a fantastic addition to the many books about the American founders.  Gordon Wood argues in Revolutionary Characters that Burr is most useful as an anomaly, because he sheds light on the “real” founders. While admitting that Burr was cast as the villain by contemporaries, Wood claims that Burr’s lack of interesting surviving letters and his eschewing of classism and non-cultivation of his legacy have made it difficult to know much.

It is true that most of Burr’s papers were destroyed or lost.  His edited papers and letters are contained in a mere two volumes where the other founders have provided posterity with much more grist for the history writing mill. Isenberg has painstakingly analyzed not only Burr’s surviving papers, but numerous letters by other contemporaries which mention Burr or are related to events in his life.  She has included sources from all over the spectrum–Burr’s friends, his enemies, his champions and detractors, in an effort to present a fuller picture of Burr than has previously imagined.

Isenberg argues successfully that Burr was a man of his time with regard to politics, even ahead of his time with regard to women’s rights–an avowed reader and respecter of Mary Wollstonecraft who educated his daughter to the same standard others of his time would have a son.  She makes clear that Burr did have a political philosophy, contrary to what some historians have written, and that though he was ambitious, his ambition was not overweening, and certainly did not override his principles, of which he had many. She successfully argues that his roles in both the 1801 election and the 1804 duel with Hamilton have largely been misconstrued both by the popular press and by the other founders, who were willing to paint Burr as a traitor in order to further their own political ambitions–Hamilton and Jefferson seem to be the most culpable, Madison less so.  It is interesting to note that Wood largely agrees with Isenberg’s assertion that Burr’s lack of care over his own legacy in contrast to the other founders’ near obsession with theirs contributed mightily to the oversimplification of Burr’s role in the early Republic. Isenberg successfully shows that Burr’s land speculation and debts, for which he was so vilified, were not altogether unusual for men of his class.  Speculation in the Western lands was a favorite pastime for those trying to make their fortunes; Burr was just not very good at it.

As James E. Lewis wrote in a review of Fallen Founder, the section on the Western Conspiracy is the weakest.  The problem is that there is almost no way to know exactly what happened. However, Isenberg does a good job presenting some evidence that would tend to exonerate Burr of the most heinous of the treason accusations.  The fact that most of the evidence against him was provided by James Wilkinson, known to have been a Spanish agent, would seem to indicate his probable innocence. Isenberg is also accurate in her recounting of the many filibustering expeditions into Texas and Louisiana during the years between 1803 and 1812.  It is possible that Burr was involved in yet another unsuccessful speculation scheme rather than an armed rebellion.  However, it was convenient for Jefferson to divert attention from his own behavior by hanging Burr out to dry (363-4). Burr’s biggest mistake seems to have been trusting Wilkinson, which is puzzling, since Wilkinson was widely regarded as possibly on the Spanish payroll as early as the 1790s (288). 

In the last section, Isenberg makes the case that Burr deserves reassessment as a founder.  He had flaws, but they all did;  he was an extraordinary man living in extraordinary times, but he was neither angel nor demon. 

I am still waiting for Burr the Musical!

Isenberg, Nancy. Fallen Founder: the life of Aaron Burr. Viking, 2007.

Lewis, James E. Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 28, no. 1, 2008, pp. 132–134. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30043577. Accessed 27 Dec. 2020.

Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: what made the founders different. Penguin Books, 2006.

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

I found this browsing in Half Price Books. I had read A Reliable Wife several years ago and was unaware of Goolrick’s second novel. A Reliable Wife is one of those books that stays with you for a long time–you keep thinking about it. Heading Out to Wonderful does not disappoint. Goolrick’s prose is beautiful: slow, but not too slow; revealing just enough as he unwinds a dark tale of love and obsession. If you are looking for a happy ending, don’t pick this up. I am not giving anything away here, the reader knows within the first few pages that Charlie Beale’s tale will end in tragedy, but can’t stop reading, hoping that maybe she is wrong and that it will all work out.  If you read A Reliable Wife, you know that Goolrick is not that kind of writer.  It will be a tale well told, but it will not end well.

Heading Out to Wonderful is written in the tradition of Southern Gothic novels with a cast of small town folks who ignore eccentricities among their own, but expect a certain adherence to unwritten rules. When a hillbilly marries the wealthiest man in town, she is still a hillbilly and Sylvan is peculiar to boot.  Charlie comes to town in the wake of World War II looking for a place to call home.  He settles in working as a butcher and everyone in town loves him, but one look at Sylvan is all it takes to unravel it all. Moody, haunting and beautifully crafted, Heading Out to Wonderful brings to mind the best of the 1940s Noir.

Rereading Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Lady Susan is frequently dismissed by scholars as a youthful creation of Austen, not worthy of inclusion among her mature works.  Many point to it as an example of her younger self experimenting with an epistolary novel, which she abandoned, and which she did not revisit in her later writing.  She revised Elinor and Marianne, which she had initially written as an epistolary novel and it became Sense and Sensibility. 

Southam dates the writing of Lady Susan to 1793-1794, (45) and it survived because Austen herself made a fair copy in 1805 (Morgan Library). This places the composition of Lady Susan just before she began Elinor and Marianne and First Impressions and before she wrote Northanger Abbey, which from the note in the introduction by Austen herself, we know to have been finished in 1803, though begun earlier, probably 1797 or 1798.  (Project Gutenburg) 

Modern readers may appreciate taking another look at Lady Susan.  It was first published in 1871 by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, as a part of his Memoir of Jane Austen.  He was working from a different copy, as the Austen manuscript was in the possession of Lady Knatchbull, Austen’s niece. Austen-Leigh included Lady Susan and several other fragments in his second edition of the Memoirs. Though Lady Susan bears a closer resemblance to other 18th Century works, such as Tom Jones, than to Austen’s later novels, it is not the failure of the epistolary form that some claim.  Lady Susan may actually bring to mind that masterpiece of the epistolary form and self-absorbed scheming, Les Liaisons Dangereuse. The subjects–adultery, manipulation, class based licentiousness are all very much present in Lady Susan. Austen’s writing is witty, and she calls upon the reader to exercise some discernment to determine who is telling the truth and when.  While it is true that the epistolary form can be difficult and at times contrived, Austen’s effort is not as weak as some would have it. She is working in this novella with characters who are less refined perhaps than her later characters, but they are just as fully developed and the storyline is brought to completion, though with a little help from the slightly intrusive narrator.  

Try reading it again or for the first time.

Southam, B. C. Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts: a study of the novelist’s development through the surviving papers. Oxford UP, 1964.

Morgan Library  https://www.themorgan.org/collection/jane-austen/lady-susan

Project Gutenburg eBook of Northanger Abbey  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/121/121-h/121-h.htm#link2H_4_0001

Some questions to consider:

  1. Which character in Lady Susan was your favorite and why?
  1. Why do you think that the Vernon children are never named?
  1. How well do you think Austen uses the epistolary form?  Have you read other novels in this form?  What are the limitations, what are the advantages for a storyteller?
  1. As she does in some of her other novels, Austen ends this one rather abruptly and the narrator fills in the reader about what happened.  Which of the characters got what they deserved–how?  Which did not?  
  1. If you were writing a continuation, which character’s point of view would the story be from and why?
  1.  Lady Susan is a sort of Austen anti-heroine.  What do you think are her redeeming qualities?

Chawton House Reading Group Titles

The Nobleman by Isabelle de Charriere and Tales of Fancy v. 1, The Shipwreck by Sarah Burney

I recently joined the Chawton House Reading Group when it went virtual and it has been a great pleasure to meet once per month with people who love books and who also love Austen.  The group includes many people with a wide knowledge of literature and the discussions are interesting–there is always plenty to talk about.

One of the wonderful things about joining a reading group is that it introduces you to books and writers you may not have found on your own.  That is certainly true of the last two titles, The Nobleman and Tales of Fancy v.1:  The Shipwreck.  

The Nobleman (1762) is the first published work of Isabelle de Chartierre, a Dutch noblewoman who adopted the French language.  She led an unconventional life, eventually settling in Switzerland and wrote numerous additional works, including other novels, plays, and even operas. I wish she were better known, but according to the editors of the version I read, because de Cherriere defies easy categorization, she has slipped through the cracks of literary history. Perhaps the efforts of the Chawton House library to bring women authors to the fore will help her get the place she has previously been denied.

The Nobleman is a thoroughly enjoyable read for a Janeite–it is clever and witty and pokes fun at a great many things, including the family portraits.  Julie, our heroine, meets Valaincourt, her hero, but alas, he is of the “newer” nobility and therefore unacceptable to her father, who bears a more than passing resemblance to Sir Walter of Persuasion in his obsession with pedigree.  After her father discovers this fact, Julie is locked in her room to come to her senses, but never fear, love prevails, the family portraits do not, and Julie weds her Valaincourt.  Her father learns to be satisfied with the lineage of his son’s chosen wife, and the ending of the novella has the narrator laughing with the reader at the silliness of it all.  

I must  confess that I found Sarah Burney’s book much less fun.  She was more contemporary to Austen, The Shipwreck was published in 1816, but she wrote in the popular sort of overblown style of Mrs. Radcliffe, which I find less appealing.  However, the book is interesting from a hIstorical perspective, and also because Sarah was Fanny Burney’s sister and Austen mentions Sarah’s book Clarentine in a letter to Cassandra dated February 8, 1817, though she is obviously not a fan.  In The Shipwreck, Viola and her mother are shipwrecked on a deserted island where they conveniently find a trunk full of books and linens, and eventually a man and child.  The suitor is at first thought by Lady E. to be completely unsuitable, but of course, by the end of the book his true character is revealed to be stellar and he gets the girl, or she gets him, whatever.

If you are looking for something to read that is Austen-adjacent, you could do worse than giving one of these a go.

NOTE: I read the Penguin Classic version of The Nobleman shown in the image and a kindle version of The Shipwreck.

The Quiet Americans by Scott Anderson

Journalist Scott Anderson has brought us a new entry to the recent riches of Cold War Nonfiction, as records are declassified and writers and historians begin searching the archives.  Told from the point of view of four different American spies, The Quiet Americans traces the Cold War from its origins in the aftermath of World War II until the 1960s, when his four subjects take their various paths away from the CIA.  I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice it to say, the subtitle:  Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War–a Tragedy in Three Acts is not misleading. 

For those who are aware of how deeply the United States was involved in dirty tricks during the Cold War, there won’t be any real surprises here, but there is plenty of evidence that our current foregin policy difficulties are mostly self-inflicted. Anderson has no liking for Ike, and spares none of the Cold Warriors from his unflinching analysis. One of the saddest things about this book is the list of missed opportunities: The Philippines, South and Central America, the death of Stalin, Iran, Hungary and the list goes on. So many turning points that could have gone differently but for stubbornness, self interest, and sometimes plain old incompetence. 

Speaking of self-interest, J. Edgar Hoover gets a lot of “page time” and he is no less a villain in this telling than he is anywhere else.  I always wonder how it was that he was able to continue his petty scheming for so long, but in a culture so unforgiving, his files kept people scared and in line.  Those who did dare to fight back were often ruined even if they were proven innocent of wrongdoing, eventually. There is a lesson for today if we care to see it. Tolerance means letting people have opinions that might be different from ours, and different opinions don’t mean someone is evil, but I digress.

Anderson takes aim at George Kennan, one of the devisers of Cold War foreign policy, unblinkingly naming him two faced.  The Dulles brothers don’t escape the spotlight either–John Foster comes off especially buffoonish. These are the famous names and faces of the Cold War and Anderson examines their records in all their unflattering detail.  It’s not all bad, but he portrays the giants, clay feet and all.  None of our spies remain convinced of the rightness or the urgency of the fight against Communism–and this is also a lesson.  The end never justifies the means. When we do wrong to get the “right” result, it isn’t the right result. 

Even though this is a book of “popular” history, Anderson is making the argument that the CIA is the ultimate fall guy–taking the blame when things go wrong, giving powerful men plausible deniability, all the while working back-room dirty deals to further shadowy policies. Efforts to make it more efficient were fought from within and without.  Its very conception was shrouded in layers of deception, so that leaders could claim ignorance if their machinations were discovered.  This is not to say that Anderson gives the impression that all CIA spooks are bad guys.  He obviously admires Peter Sichel, has a lot of sympathy for Frank Wisner and a kind of awe for Michael Burke and Ed Lansdale. And yet, all of them ultimately fail to redeem the mission they initially believed in from the relentlessly secretive bureaucracy that the CIA became and the personal shortcomings of men like Hoover, the Dulles brothers, and Eisenhower. 

In our current moment, it serves us well to think on how we might try to fulfill the promise of America as it was at the end of World War II. We cannot undo what has been done, but we can proceed from this point forward with caution and a willingness to listen and learn.

Anderson’s book is meticulously researched and includes notes, bibliography and a pretty good index. Fans of narrative nonfiction, history, and Cold War shenanigans will not be disappointed.

Jane Austen Embroidery: Regency Patterns Reimagined for Modern Stitchers

by Jennie Batchelor & Alison Larkin

This delightful book is a combination of Austen adjacent writing and embroidery instruction.  Though I knew Austen to be occupied with needlework since it figures in some of her letters and family stories, I had not considered more deeply any connection between artistry with a needle and artistry with a pen.  This work does do that, as well as offering the reader a selection of period embroidery patterns which the authors have provided color choices, stitching instructions, and even suggestions for how to make up the finished products–with lists of sources for some of the harder to find materials.

The commentary begins with Wollstonecraft, who found needlework an offense to women, because it led to fatuousness in her opinion–women who cared too much about fashion and dress.  Sadly, I think in this instance Wollstonecraft commits one of the “sins” of some forms of feminism, which is to discount women who make choices different from our own, thus splitting women along lines of preference rather than calling for the acceptance of women as humans of equal value with men. The sad story of Mary Lamb is also related, but the authors quickly move on to consider Austen’s own thoughts about needlework, which were fascinating. Each chapter includes connections to Austen’s writing; citations and endnotes are available for further reading.

The patterns come from the Ladies’ Magazine circa 1770-1810 either found or given to the authors as they worked on this project.  According to the authors, one of the reasons it can be challenging to find Regency Era embroidery patterns is that they were intended to be taken out of the magazine and used.  Most methods of transferring the patterns to fabric would have resulted in their destruction.

The projects are designed for all levels of stitchers, from beginner to advanced.  Interested readers may find more about this by watching this talk, given at Chawton House, and by taking a look at the “Stitch Off” Twitter stream.  By the way, I totally want those shoes…

As testament that anyone really can do it, I started with the “Simple Sprig Pattern,” which I embroidered on an old handkerchief that I had found at a flea market.  It is the photo that accompanies this post.  I am now working on the reticule, though I changed the color scheme.  I intend to be more than ready when the AGM goes back in person!  I am including a photo of that, though keep in mind that it is in progress, so you can still see the green transfer lines I made to sew by…

For those of you interested in other “saved” patterns, Ackerman’s Repository 1809-1829 has been digitized and there are more instructions about how to access that here.

Happy Stitching!

Make your own Tea Cozy

Tea Cozies can be hard to find on this side of the pond. Why not make your own, it isn’t too hard and you can make it as simple or as fancy as you wish. I made this one for my mother-in-law out of an old remnant that she liked from an estate sale. I made one for myself out of scraps and added a lace remnant. Here is a link to the pattern, This is half–so you would cut it on the fold. It is 7″ across the bottom and 10.5″ high.

Use your imagination!

Materials needed:

  1. ½ yard of fabric of your choice–heavy weight natural fibers recommended.
  2. ½ yard lining fabric–muslin recommended
  3. ½ yard batting–I used 100% cotton; I do not recommend polyester, it doesn’t retain the heat as well.  I have tested my cozy and it will keep the pot and tea hot for about 50 minutes.
  4. Trimmings as desired.

Instructions:

  1. Before cutting, wash or clean the fabric and iron it.
  2. Cut out the main fabric, the lining and the batting with your pattern. You will need 2 of each.
  3. If you are using trim, pin it to the right side of one of the main pieces.
  4. Sew on the trim; use a ⅜ seam allowance so that when the cozy is finished it won’t show.
  1. Remove the pins on the trim. 
  2. Pin the lining right sides together, with one layer of batting on the outside of each.  You will have a batting/fabric sandwich.  batting>>two right sides together of lining>>batting.  Pin this carefully around the curve.
  3. Sew a ⅝ seam around the curve through all 4 layers.
  4. Clip the curve of the batting/lining piece and the main piece to allow turning.
  5. Turn all and iron, right sides out.
  1. Turn the main piece –wrong side out again and place the lining inside the main piece, right sides together.  It will look like an inside out hat.  You will have the two right sides together on the inside, with the batting showing and you will have the outside of the main on the outside.  The lining/batting will be wrong side out, but on the inside of the cozy.
  2. Pin the bottom all the way round.  It is a circle (ish).
  3. Sew a ⅝ seam, leaving a gap to turn the cozy right side out.
  4. Turn it right side out and iron it.
  5. Pin the bottom edge all the way around and sew a top stitch all the way around the bottom to finish.
  6. Hand sew a few stitches through all layers at the top, so that it will stay together.

You’re done!  Make a pot of tea and relax with a good book…

Summer of Covid Austen fan fiction round up…

Okay, maybe 2 books isn’t really a “round up,”  but I have been on an Aaron Burr kick, so I only got two Austen fan fiction books read this summer…Plus, I am pretty picky when it comes to Austen fan fiction, so a lot of titles never make it past me reading the synopsis.  I plan to do more Austen related reading this fall as I begin working on some research about Austen in American schools.  More on that later.

First, the bad.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

I wanted to like this one…really.

Sadly, it is a pale imitation of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Part of the problem is that the Jane Austen Society actually exists, so this falls flat on that front, but the characters and plot lines are mostly meh.  Everything is predictable, and the “discussions” of Austen are contrived and shallow.  If you are looking for quality fiction with an Austen connection, try the Jane Austen Project, or The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, either of which is infinitely more satisfying than this one. 

Now for the good.

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

This one, I really enjoyed.  A bit long at 465 pages, there are some bits that could have been edited, and one does grow a little weary of Mary’s internal monolog.  Otherwise, though this is a solid entry about a subject much speculated on–whatever happened to Mary?  Most Austen fans agree that Kitty could go either way and Lydia is a lost cause, but what of Mary, the serious, plain sister?  Hadlow takes an interesting approach in starting Mary’s story before P&P begins, but continuing it after, so that P&P is kind of a marker for those who know it well.  In this imagining, Mary is mostly ignored by her father, constantly berated by her mother, and as the middle sister, embodies that desire to please and be accepted that middle children often exhibit. 

I won’t ruin the story by giving it away, but here’s what I will say.  Hadlow effectively fleshes out Mary’s character, though sometimes at the expense of Jane and Lizzie, which some purists may find off-putting.  However, it is deftly done and both Jane and Lizzie manage to redeem themselves in the end.  Mary grows into a serious and considerate person and manages some adventures of her own in the romance department–the best part–she eventually gets the better of Caroline Bingley.  That alone makes the book worth reading. We do meet the Gardiners again, which is nice, since they seem such a wonderful happy family and their role in P&P was somewhat circumscribed.  The Collinses also feature–and most fans will be happy to know that in Hadlow’s version Mary does wonder about marriage to Mr. Collins, something many have posited as a good outcome for her (and him). This one definitely makes the cut for a fun Austen fan read.  Enjoy!

Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins

This title had been on my to be read pile for quite some time.  One of the upsides to the Covid Crisis has been that I am working my way through some really good books that I had never gotten around to reading.  In stark contrast to Star Spangled Scandal, this narrative nonfiction offering delivers the goods.  It is highly engaging, well written, and offers a glimpse of a lesser known episode in history.  I mean, who doesn’t love a murder mystery?  And unlike attempts to unmask Jack the Ripper, the solution turns out to be pretty convincing to the reader.  

The subtitle here is revealing:  The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr Teamed up to Take on America’s First Murder Mystery.  Indeed!  The year is 1800.  Erstwhile frenemies and uber-competitive New York Lawyers Burr and Hamilton are co-counsels for the defense and they definitely put on quite a show.  However, Hamilton-mania aside, there is much more to the book.  The lives of women and workaday people are revealed here as well.  When the body of Elma Sands was found in a well belonging to Aaron Burr’s Manhattan Company (the water company he founded to get around banking monopolies held by Federalists in NY), he is already invested in trying to keep the scandal manageable.  But when Levi Weeks, master carpenter and general good guy is accused of the murder, he and Hamilton, along with Brockholst Livingston are hired by Ezra Weeks, Levi’s influential architect brother, to represent him at the trial.  All of this occurs during a Yellow Fever epidemic, no less.

The public were already convinced of Levi’s guilt, so it was something of an uphill battle.  Along the way, the reader is privy to many of the details of Burr’s and Hamiltons’s personal histories together. Fascinating stuff and much less worshipful of Hamilton as some kind of champion for the little guy, since he was not–that role actually belongs to Burr of all people. Fans of the musical may be unhappily surprised to find that Hamilton was not as great a hero, nor Burr a villain as portrayed, but I digress.

In the end, Burr and Hamilton pull off a Perry Mason–they accuse someone else of the murder and get their client off.  The author then does the reader the kindness of solving the crime and tidying up the loose ends.  Altogether, this is a highly readable, extremely interesting slice of Early Republic life, complete with the tangled webs of connection between families in New York society. The book is painstakingly endnoted and sources are listed for those who want to read more.

I impatiently await Burr the Musical

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What was the most surprising thing you found out while reading this book?  What surprised you about it?
  2. What would you like to learn more about after reading this book?  Why?
  3. Do you think the author was correct in his solution of the murder?  What did you find most or least convincing?
  4. How were the courtroom scenes different to what you expected?
  5. Was there anything not included in the book that you thought should have been, or included that you thought should have been left out?  Why?