Mysteries in History

After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection

by James West Davidson, by Mark Hamilton Lytle
Knopf, 388 pp., $19.50

Cynics (mainly professors) will occasionally call pedagogy a lame branch of the entertainment industry. A standard defense is that you have to keep classes awake somehow. The fact is that a good many professors fancy themselves as entertainers, cultivate theatrical wiles, and cherish reputations as performers. Few successful teachers are able to dispense with such stratagems completely in a pinch.

Whether historians are peculiarly prone to adopt these devices or not, their subject matter would seem to lend itself to the temptation. For one thing, so much of it is script suitable for theater of the absurd and for black humor. Another reason is that in the practice of the craft the historians are thrust—sometimes inappropriately—into a wide variety of roles and often play them, whether they are appropriate or not. These include the parts played by judge, jury, prosecutor, investigative reporter, and—most analogous by far—the detective. The latter is the part favored by historians, and nearly all of them have a turn at it.

In The Historian as Detective, which preceded the book under review by several years, Robin W. Winks points out the similarity between the historian and the detective (“at least the detective of fiction”) in the methods and techniques they use to collect, interpret, and explain their evidence. He also remarks on the number of detective-story addicts and detective-fiction writers among English and American historians. Winks illustrates his comparison with a collection of twenty-six essays by as many historians.

James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle, in After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, give thirteen examples of the art as they practice it themselves. Their subjects, all drawn from American history, are mysteries ranging from the earliest years of colonial settlement down through Watergate. The authors admit that in most of the mysteries they are either reporting or leaning on findings of more specialized historians. But they are not merely posing with meerschaum, magnifying glass, and deer-stalking cap. Davidson and Lytle are actively involved in all the sleuthing that goes on and often make original contributions of their own. They are addressing both amateurs and professionals and manage to convey to both their zest for the sport.

A conventional opening for the detective story is the discovery of a body. Here we start with thousands of bodies, with the problem of explaining why the first permanent colony in Virginia sustained a death rate of 75 to 80 percent in its first two decades—more than twice that of the black death plague in England in the fourteenth century. Indians and disease took their toll but the main cause is found to be starvation—and this in the fabled Land of Plenty where food was easily grown. The authors’ explanation deepens the mystery. The solution, suggested not by them but by Edmund S. Morgan, is the first American boom, the get-rich-quick tobacco boom. It in turn suggests clues to the reliance on indentured white labor and the postponement of …

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