After historian H.W. Brands places us along funeral processions, sits us in jury boxes and pokes our noses inside Gilded Age rooms as captains of industry consummate dubious deals, we check that we're still in our reading chairs and ask: How does he do that?
James "Diamond Jim" Fisk, a financier, and Josie Mansfield, a showgirl, conduct an affair that starts as scandal and ends -- at the hand of pistol-wielding Ned Stokes -- in homicide. But despite mistrials and 11th-hour stays, this book is less about the what than the how.
Brands immerses us with sensory details conveyed from a close point of view and a short-chapters structure rendered as if in real time. He draws characters with few lines and many colors: "[Fisk's] starched collar and tight cravat cover a heart that can merely be presumed to exist." And he scrutinizes trials from more angles than did Stokes' legal team: "Stokes looks up and toward the jury. The beginning of a smile flits across his face."
A professor at the University of Texas and twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist, Brands brings much credibility to these pages. At times, though -- such as when taken to the murder scene (or inside Mansfield's head) -- we wonder: How does he know that? Rather than encumber this evocative narrative, further attribution of the newspapers Brands so thoroughly combed might have made us check our hands, too -- for ink stains.
Tom Swift is the author of "Chief Bender's Burden." He lives in Northfield.