Murder in Tombstone, by Steven Lubet

November 23, 2011 at 19:45 (Biography, Book Reviews, Crime and Law Enforcement, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century) (, , , , , , , )


This was a wonderfully gripping history. Accusations of plagiarism and grandstanding aside, all history books should be written with the same passion and clarity that Lubet manages in his study. While he can come across as suspicious or stodgy at times (or, on the other hand, tenacious and deeply moral), Lubet also appears to rigidly adhere to the facts. His disinterest in a lot of the historical accusations, jibes and brouhahaing allows him to take a forensic look at the evidence and the laws in place, rather than stepping into the brawl himself. It is an irony, then, that his dryness and unwillingness to delve into pettiness is precisely what makes this book so compelling. As a history, this work has become contentious, based largely on the implications of Earp’s gunfight on modern day gun rights. There is no reason why this ought to be the case: and mercifully Steven Lubet has the good sense and professionalism to stay very well away from drawing any connections between the past and the present.

“When Tom threatened to ‘make a fight,’ Wyatt obliged him: ‘I slapped him in the face with my left hand and drew my pistol with my right…and I hit him on the head with my six-shooter and walked away.'”

-Murder in Tombstone

Lubet makes judicious use of plenty of period sources, including the local newspapers and the diary of the garrulous George Parsons, but at no point does he commit the schoolboy error that so many historians plunge gleefully into, and try and end up struggling with an unlikely and badly-drawn account of “what it must have been like”. He is not trying to take his readers on a field trip into the Old West: he is trying to open a court case and a potentially criminal act for study. In some very compelling summaries, the author echoes the reports of Judge Spicer, declaring Wyatt Earp innocent and rehabilitated to history…but not necessarily a wise, honest or good man. His own speculative additions are brief enough to be humble and subtle enough to be thought provoking, and this book certainly succeeds in its scope and stated aims. An excellent effort.


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The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, by Piers Brendon

July 24, 2011 at 12:31 (Book Reviews, English History, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century) (, , , , , )


Piers Brendon writes with the sort of jocular and sardonic style that has become the form for modern histories; always gently mocking all that is positive in his chosen study, and phlegmatically acknowledging all that is negative, all the while maintaining a carefully constructed distance so as not to be sullied by the riff-raff he describes. This permits him astonishing liberties in both damning and lauding, but is a little frustrating due to the difficulty of pinning him down to an honest opinion: these he gives sparingly and reservedly.

While this book is an overview and a glossed account of some two hundred years of global history: in spite of–or even because of his title, Brendon spends very little time at all in the British Isles, and omits almost in their entirety such crucial subjects as the industrial revolution, the repeal of the corn laws, the liberalisation of the British Parliament and even the fierce battles of Disraeli and Gladstone for control of Bristish destiny. All of these subjects are admitted only insofar as they relate to Empire, and then only as they relate directly.

“They included Scottish Highlanders, bag-piped and red-coated, bonneted, plumed and kilted, who were variously thought to be women, eunuchs and demons with a keen appetite for ‘curried black babies.’ Certainly they were a terrifying array, once complimented by General Havelock for holding their fire until ‘you saw the colour of your enemy’s mustachios.'”

-The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

Despite this selectiveness and despite his massive scope, Brendon manages to treat several intricate colonial stories with surprising detail. There are the ubiquitous anecdotes and personal recollections and slanders, following modern history’s trend of focusing a little myopically on the “common people” (whoever they were) at the expense of wars and acts and personages; but Brendon allows himself enough space and time to pause on occasion to actually question the causes and reasons for some very singular events. Seldom does he allow himself to give a definitive answer, but at least he ventures so far as to offer out definitive questions.

With prose both lyrical and perversely vernacular, this is not the sort of book where any committed reader will find himself bogged down in a syntactically murderous discussion of dusty manuscript or appalling old civil servants and their historical meddling. It is thrilling in parts, but not gratuitously so, and has a depth that is unexpected in such a casual treatment of such a vast subject. The book’s greatest omission is its apparent failure to contextualise its history, or to link its chronology in a dynamic way to the evolution of global politics and society: however, this omission is apparent only at the first glance, and only because of the sheer mass of material presented, which outweighs the clear comparative commentary that Brendon provides. This is not a flawless work, and it is certainly not the last word on the subject; but it is a pleasing introduction written with a fluent pen and a surprising amount of insight and detail.

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The Balkans, by Misha Glenny

March 24, 2011 at 14:57 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , , )


An essential book for anyone interested in anything more than a snapshot of the Balkans and their troubled history. Glenny does not go into great depth when dealing with peripheral issues such as Western European politics, and he relies heavily on his reader’s familiarity with the Byzantine-Turkish wars in particular and the entire region’s Medieval history in general; but when he reaches his subject he is thoughtful, painstaking and scrupulous in his artistic depiction of the shifting fates and follies of the Yugoslavian nations and their neighbours.

His book has a definite agenda to it, and his insistence on blaming the Treaty of Lausanne, Congress of Berlin and NATO for all of the Balkan violence seems a little one-sided; while external manipulation has certainly plagued the region excessively, the sheer scale of the repeated genocides, rapes and wanton slaughters suggests deeper-seeded issues than simply the provocation of careless and greedy superpowers. Nevertheless, although this particular perspective is laid on rather thickly, Glenny is a convincing communicator, and never relies upon blind assumption or tenuous causality, tracing his arguments out in abundant documentary caution, and providing a very attractive thesis.

This history expends itself mostly between 1890 and 1940, choosing the bookends of the Congress of Berlin and the disastrous Nazi occupation; but an extra hundred pages on the Communist Balkans would have been very welcome (Ceaucescu’s deposition and execution is given only one sentence, and many of the colourful and vital figures are given only brief mention). Evidently Glenny is of the opinion that these years were dominated by symptoms of earlier illnesses, and of only fleeting curiosity. While a great deal of credit must be given Glenny for his even coverage of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Albania and even peripheral nations such as Turkey and Hungary, after the Second World War his attention becomes almost entirely diverted to the Bosniak-Croat-Serb quarrels–a surprising choice, considering Albania’s and Macedonia’s supreme relevance to these three ethnic groups! He admits as much, but prefers to centre his efforts on the major players rather than the prizes for which they were fighting.

It seems that there is room for Glenny or another historian to expand upon the dooms prophesied in this book and write a lengthy sequel covering Yugoslavia from 1990 until Kosovo’s independence. Such a book would be very welcome, and would add significantly to this excellent work.

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Bismarck, by A. J. P. Taylor

February 14, 2011 at 20:51 (Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century, Politics) (, , , )


Taylor’s excellent biography is written with a very self-conscious reference to the First and Second World Wars, and the somewhat obvious statement (once even overtly stated) that Bismarck’s policies and weaknesses as an egotist directly led to both forms the spiritual core of this work. As an apologetic as to why Germany ‘went bad’ it is arrogant and harsh, and it would be interesting to see a similarly detailed look at Germany’s foundation and Bismarck’s career written in a post-Soviet world, and with reflections on current German politics; though such an account would surely seem as myopic and dated as Taylor’s does, fifty years later.

A fatal weakness is Taylor’s attempt to solve the problems of Bismarck’s life through the pseudopsychology of Jung and Freud, usually at the cost of describing those influential figures around him; it was disappointing to see that key members of the German government such as the Crown Prince and Princess were flatly ignored, while Queen Victoria and Alexander III were given only peripheral and half-hearted depictions. Of great interest is Taylor’s theory that Bismarckian political strategies survived the old politician, and lasted long into the twentieth century, partly responsible for the precarious Entente/Alliance system, and ending only with the outbreak of the Great War. This theorising and type of thinking absolutely smacks of wishful thinking and post-war revisionism, and yet the pieces do actually fit. It would be unwise to dismiss Taylor’s hypotheses simply because of his proximity to his subject. Once again, a modern study of this theory would be invaluable, though not of course automatically superior. Ultimately, Taylor’s biography is neither a panegyric nor a damnation of all things German, and if it paints an unbalanced portrait of Bismarck then it also offers several very apt and interesting analyses, from the similarities between his foreign policy and Napoleon’s Continental System to at least a cursory look at his schizophrenic relationship with the British Empire, and his own forays into colonial Imperialism. Taylor chooses the fields upon which he desires to fight, and he makes his stand well; and if he has his reasons for omitting or including material according to his own whims, this hardly denigrates the general standard of this perfectly sufficient biography.

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Royal Web, by Ladislas Farago and Andrew Sinclair

August 16, 2010 at 15:38 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Nineteenth Century) (, , , , , )


An excellent book, and almost without room for improvement. Farago and Sinclair have here an absolute gem, in a collated and sensible collection of the correspondences of the elder and younger Victorias. As long as these resources exist, they are a treasure trove in themselves, but the responsible and dilligent effort of these authors spins the mass of material into a complex and comprehensive history that gives a precious overview of the birth of the German Reich, an intimate portrait (it might be said caricatured by the petulance of the princess) of the enigmatic and darkly-brooding Bismarck, and a thorough examination of the Crown Prince and Princess, and of the intra-family relationships of the great European dynasty of the Saxe-Coburg-Gothe.

It might be open to question whether there is much of a “Royal Web” involved here. Surely a title “The Life and Letters of Princess Victoria” would have been more honest, if less exciting. Whether or not there is much of a “spy hole” nestled against the heart of Germany, or indeed if Victoria’s letters to her mother might comprise part of an “intelligence network” is a little dubious, but outside the rather sensationalised dust jacket blurb both Farago and Sinclair treat their subject professionally and with a view to integrity and fairness. It is touching, for instance, that Sinclair acknowledges Farago’s immense contribution (Farago died shortly before publication); it is impressive that a letter from a Hessian scion disagreeing boldly with the conclusions presented in the book is included in print.

If the subject of this history had been dealt with in any great depth, it would be a triumph of revisionism. As it is, this book uncovers new and earth-shattering information not formerly in accessible condition in the public domain, and opens up an invaluable window on nineteenth century politics. Any serious historian of the period must read this.

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