Solace in True Crime?

In Cold Blood, Truman CapoteEditors of The Guardian gave a topping headline to a Rafia Zakaria story about the attractions of the true crime genre: “Reading a genre where the worst has already happened is an odd comfort.” There’s truth in that. A few years ago, I was struck low by life circumstances and in a rare (for me) state of malaise sat down in front of the television in the middle of a Saturday afternoon to watch The Pianist. Oddly, when the end credits rolled, I felt better. When I told my daughter about this, she said, “Ah. A movie about someone with real problems.” Exactly.

Zakaria suggests true crime as a corrective, even for political angst. “No other genre is a more apt testament that our evil, primal, fearful selves linger just beneath our calm, civilised exteriors, that life goes on even after the worst has happened, and that all catastrophe, central or marginal, has to be understood and confronted before a future becomes possible.”

In our household we’re stuck back at the first stage: probing the calm, civilized exteriors, looking beneath Victorian London with our six books on Jack the Ripper—each with its earnestly promoted theory of the villain’s identity—our five books about the Lizzie Borden case, six about the 1930s Lindbergh kidnapping, and more.

The distance afforded by time provides a bit of psychological insulation, and weighting the theories about these “unsolved” or “unresolved” cases have enlivened many a dinnertime conversation. Perhaps if you visited Cleveland, you went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or even a ballgame at Progressive Field. Not likely you made a pilgrimage to the 1954 home of Dr. Sam Sheppard and his soon-to-be-late wife, Marilyn (LMGTFY). We did.

If in these trying times, you want to test the true crime palliative, Truman Capote’s 1966 book In Cold Blood still sets the standard. (Both the Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones movie versions are riveting as well.)

Here are four more excellent possibilities:

*****No Stone Unturned

justice

photo: Dan4th Nicholas, creative commons license

By Steve Jackson, narrated by Kevin Pierce. Every year, thousands of Americans disappear who are believed murdered, but their bodies are never found. Even if the police have a suspect, lack of a body and the evidence associated with it impedes and may even prevent prosecution. Without a body, the case may be just not winnable “beyond the shadow of a doubt.”

As harrowing as any fictional thriller, this absorbing book tells the real-life story of Colorado-based NecroSearch International—an organization of volunteer scientists that brings a surprisingly large array of disciplines to the search for clandestine graves and the analysis of the evidence they hold. What began as a research project has led to work with police forces from across the country to find the bodies of more than 300 people missing and believed murdered. This book, initially published in 2001, was updated in 2015 for the audio and Kindle editions.

When a small group of researchers began this work, they were interested only in developing more scientific methods for grave searches. They started by burying the bodies of pigs at various depths to see how, over time, different detection methods could yield useful results. Eventually, they added experts in additional specialties, bringing together forensic scientists, soil experts, naturalists, botanists who know which plants grow in disturbed soil, geologists, experts on hydrology, meteorology, psychology, geophysics, entomology, anthropology, and “cadaver dog” handlers. Some members now are from law enforcement.

They use technology—like ground-penetrating radar, infrared imaging, and aerial photography (now sometimes using drones)—but it’s their encyclopedic knowledge of the way soil, stone, water, plants, insects, and wildlife interact that sets them apart. The scientists always caution that no technology can reveal where a body is, but their methods can tell the police where to look.

When the police have a suspected grave site, the alternative, still used too often, is to bring in a backhoe, destroying evidence and disturbing the remains, so that tiny details that provide important clues are lost. NecroSearch approaches a site like an anthropologist exploring an ancient city, gently removing one layer of soil at a time and sifting it for evidence.

Their first of many setbacks was when some of the pigs were dug up and scavenged by animals. Once they realized a human corpse was as likely to be scavenged as one of the pigs, this became an opportunity to bring in animal behavior experts to consider likely predators and how they would deal with the remains.

Jackson, a journalist with a talent for clear and compelling prose, tells the story of their accumulating expertise through the actual cases they worked on—not all of which were successful. Team members work as volunteers, asking only for expense reimbursement. Their payment is in the form of satisfaction—the successful application of scientific methods to difficult problems, aiding the police in finding evidence that will allow a murderer to go to trial, and, every bit as important to them, giving closure to the family and the investigators, often after years of fruitless searching and agonizing uncertainty.

Kevin Pierce gives a fine, energetic reading that draws you into the cases and what it means to the scientists when they are able to resolve one. “There is no statute of limitations on murder,” they say, “and no statute of limitations on grief. The truth does matter.”

***David and Goliath

david-and-goliath, statue, sculpture

photo: Darrel Birkett, creative commons license

By Malcolm Gladwell – The subtitle of this book, Gladwell’s fifth, is “Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.” It’s much better that he titled the book as he did, rather than “an exploration of the inverted U-shaped curve.” Gladwell uses his well-developed skill at mixing anecdote and social science research to create a fascinating series of case studies of how, out on the far edges of that curve, powerful institutions and individuals (Goliaths) with seemingly everything going for them can be undermined or bested by seemingly weaker ones (Davids).

Gladwell maintains that people consistently misjudge these kinds of conflicts, because we don’t recognize the weaknesses of Goliaths and underestimate the possibility that Davids can do the unexpected. By the end of the book, his cases demonstrate not just how those with supposed advantages can fail, but also how they can, paradoxically, end up causing these very failures.

As in his previous books—The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers—Gladwell marshals fascinating case histories to build and extend his argument bit by bit. Often these examples illustrate the wrong-headedness of conventional wisdom. An early example is the entrenched belief that smaller class sizes improve education, while a growing body of literature suggests that the number of pupils makes no difference in the mid-range (the large number of cases under the U) and that very small classes (one tail of the U) can actually be counter-productive: They are too easily dominated by one or two students and do not present sufficient variety of viewpoints.

The book’s middle section talks about people who have overcome difficulties—dyslexia, racial prejudice—and how the experience of those difficulties actually have facilitated their success. (David Boies, the ultra-successful attorney with dyslexia, had to learn to listen very very carefully and remember very very well because reading was so difficult.)

It’s hard to know what generalized conclusions can be derived from this section. Complicating the situation are an array of individual, parental, social, and other mitigating factors, which Gladwell doesn’t address. So while overcoming severe difficulties is remotely possible (many successful entrepreneurs—perhaps a third—turn out to be dyslexic, for example), his argument seems more interesting than instructive. The exception proving the rule.

Finally, Gladwell discusses the limits of power and how people who have wanted to impose order, such as hardliners among the British in Northern Ireland or supporters of three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws, actually devised policies that produced the opposite effect than that they desired. Gladwell makes a broader point here, well worth considering in light of current events: “The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.”

Gladwell is all about extending his arguments to new territory and, in that vein, reading this section, I couldn’t help thinking about the forthcoming presidential election. Will preemptory allegations about the “rigging” of the vote undermine the election’s legitimacy and, therefore, any new administration’s ability to govern?

Reading Malcolm Gladwell is like brain yoga, an opportunity to stretch your thinking. Whether he’s perfectly “right” in some of his theorizing or whether he too carefully cherrypicks his examples to prove his case, more thinking has to be a good thing in these times.

***The Art of Forgery

paint-brushes

photo: Lynn Friedman, creative commons license

By Noah Charney – In this richly illustrated book, author Charney explores many of the most notorious cases of art forgery—a deception that dates to ancient Rome—and the often colorful characters bent on deception. Like all crimes, this one depends on opportunity and motive.

While Old Masters may be a forger’s more likely and lucrative target, what about modern abstract artists? Can you tell the fakes? Take this clever quiz!

Opportunity

Until very recently, the perceived value of artworks and religious objects was solely expert-driven, based on connoisseurship. If a recognized expert asserted that a painting was a heretofore undiscovered Rembrandt, for all intents and purposes (especially sales value), it was.

Today, science provides museums and private collectors with increasing protection. Chemical, radiographic, and other advanced techniques can analyze paper, canvas, pigments, wood, and other intrinsic attributes of a work. A common giveaway is the use of paints that weren’t available at the time the artwork was supposedly created. But science provides protection only if would-be buyers insist tests be performed before they write out their check.

Over the years, forgers have responded by becoming more skilled in reproducing the materials and techniques of the past, so that often their work can pass all but the most detailed examination. Detailed digital replicas pose a new hazard to unwary purchasers.

Those engaged in an art forgery racket also excel in producing false documentation and paper trails. These establish the spurious lineage and history of ownership (called provenance) of a work. Forgers rarely simply copy an existing work—it’s too easily identified as already hanging in a museum or private collection. Instead, they precisely mimic an artist’s style and favored subject matter. This new work is then passed off as a “lost” or previously unknown masterwork, with all the paperwork to prove it.

Motivation

Why do they do it, when the possibility of detection is ever-present? Charney says some simply like the challenge of pitting their skill against that of past masters. A German newspaper said forger Wolfgang Beltracchi “painted the best Campendonk that ever was.” Indeed, some forgers have been artistic geniuses, but underappreciated and undervalued in their own time. For that reason, revenge against an indifferent art establishment contributes to motive. Art forgery is not treated as a particularly serious crime and rarely results in lengthy jail terms (usually for fraud). Many former forgers have gained substantial fame after their misdeeds were exposed.

More rarely, copies of paintings are made and substituted for the real thing, delaying detection of the theft of the originals. At Prague’s Sternberk Palace, thieves skipped the hard part and substituted a poster for the original they stole; in Poland, more ambitious thieves replaced the painting they stole with a painted-over poster bought at the museum gift shop. It took days for anyone to notice.

Unscrupulous dealers—con artists, basically—persuade some artists to create works in a particular style. The excitement and pride collectors feel when they “discover” a lost artwork typically makes the seller’s job easier.

Charney describes numerous examples of fraudulent art from over the centuries, and his comparison photos add much to the book’s enjoyment. (Forgery of religious relics is a cottage industry in Israel and the Middle East, detailed in Nina Burleigh’s excellent Unholy Business, touched on briefly in Charney’s book.)

Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur “The world wishes to be deceived,” the book’s cover says, “so let it be deceived.”

***Between You and Me

Mary Norris, punctuationBy Mary Norris – This book—part history of language, part grammarians’ bible, part punctilious punctuation-snob puncturer—by a veteran New Yorker copy editor attempts to explain why writers in English, particularly those whose work appears in The New Yorker, make the choices they do. Form, not content, is her subject. While that publication is notoriously picky about copy matters, Norris’s anecdote-rich text suggests how much elasticity actually exists within its seemingly constricting rules.

Particularly entertaining are the early sections that include a review of her checkered, pre-New Yorker work experience. (You can’t really call a stint as a milk-truck driver and costume shop clerk a career for a person who did graduate work in English.)

Norris took her title from the common grammar mistake people make in using “I” when “me” is required. I yell at the radio when I hear the awful “between you and I” or “He invited Tom and I . . .” I suspect Norris does too.

Several chapters cover the ongoing punctuation wars. No surprise, as the subtitle of the book is Confessions of a Comma Queen. In the comma skirmish, I find I fight on the side of “playing by ear,” dropping in a comma where I sense a pause. And in hyphen disputes, her emphasis on clarity of meaning seems a useful approach. Thus the hyphen in milk-truck driver above.

Some of the text on verbs got away from me and her suggestion for how to tell whether a sentence needs “who” or “whom” (for the straggling soldiers in that lost battle), her system was overly complex or not explained clearly. I’ll stick with mine.

pencils

photo: Vladimer Shioshvili, creative commons license

The very best chapter was devoted to Norris’s love of pencils. Extra-soft No.1 pencils, in fact. The kind of pencil that has also kindled a love of pencil sharpeners. (I’ve served time in innumerable meeting rooms over the years and can tell you that The Ford Foundation’s black pencils, embossed with its name, and the round ones of the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C., which come in easter egg pastels, are the best. Whenever I attended meetings there, I stocked up.)

Reading anyone’s description of something they are both passionate and deeply knowledgeable about—making wine, say, or 1950s automobiles—is always interesting, and you learn as much about the person as about their particular interest. I don’t ever have to read about pencils again, but I’m glad I did.

*****Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story

war damage, bomb

photo: Feyrouz at English Wikipedia, creative commons license

During the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon in the late 1980s and 1990s, the army gave its outposts botanical names, which led to an otherwise undistinguished hill’s being called “Pumpkin.” In military radio traffic, a dead soldier was an “oleander” and an injured soldier merely a “flower,” species undefined.

Pumpkinflowers, then, refers not to a bucolic late-summer farm field, but rather to the soldiers physically and sometimes mentally wounded by service in a hostile land, where their presence became increasingly indefensible. Matti Friedman tells the stories of these young men and their challenges feelingly and at close hand, as he was one of them.

Friedman is a journalist born in Canada, who lamented the lack of writing about that occupation and its impact on the young Israeli men who served there, most of them fresh out of high school. So he set about telling their story himself, believing today’s Middle East situation had some of its seeds in this unnamed and largely ignored security zone conflict.

Initially, as so often happens in military history, the generals were fighting the last war. They thought the enemy comprised somewhat ragtag Palestinian guerrillas, but before long, the occupiers faced local Shiites, who called themselves the Party of God, Hezbollah. This group was generously funded by Iran and Syria and able to call on a seemingly endless supply of would-be suicide bombers. Hezbollah also soon seized the lead in the propaganda war.

That the TV images were the real weapons, that the Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers had been turned into actors in an attack staged for the camera—these weren’t things anyone understood yet. . . . Within a few years elements of the security zone war would, in turn, appear elsewhere and become familiar . . . : Muslim guerrillas operating in a failed and chaotic state; small clashes in which the key actor is not the general but the lieutenant or private; the use of a democracy’s sensitivities, public opinion, and free press as weapons against it.

(The Body of an American, a prize-winning play reviewed here, makes a similar point.)

Hezbollah was not interested in a negotiated withdrawal of Israeli troops or achievement of some limited goal: “It is a vision and an approach, not only a military reaction,” one of its leaders has written. Subsequent actions continue to demonstrate this larger view, which suggests limits on a strictly military response.

Through discussion of the Four Mothers movement, which supported withdrawal from Lebanon, Friedman explores the political conflict between the leftists of the dwindling kibbutz movement who in the 1990s believed in compromise and thought peace was possible and the rightists who believed peace was a dangerous illusion and who currently dominate Israeli politics.

The last section of the book describes Friedman’s return to Lebanon (using his Canadian passport) and his rediscovery of the remains of the Pumpkin, a place as tangible to him today, in its continued importance, as it ever was when he served there.

Not a long book at 225 pages, it’s insightful and well written, condensing both human interest and political analysis into the story of a single lost outpost. Author Lucette Lagnado says Friedman’s prose “manages to be lyrical, graceful, and deeply evocative even when tackling the harshest subjects imaginable,” and I certainly found it so.

 

The Winner’s Circle

horse racing

At Belmont, 2013 (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

Horses, horse people, jockeys, trainers, and touts. Watching the Kentucky Derby—“the most exciting two minutes in sports”—last Saturday made me think of some of the great books about horses and the quirky, obsessive people who surround them.

The horses are huge, but run on the most fragile of ankles. The jockeys are small, but mostly heart. Racing is a quick way to burn money. No wonder storytellers have capitalized on its dramatic potential.

Horse Heaven – by Jane Smiley. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, yet I found this novel way more satisfying. She’s developed a stableful of engaging characters as you follow the fates of several horses bred for racing, a risky proposition in the best of times. As much about people and their passions and predilections as about horses, of course.

Lords of Misrule – by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, this novel is set in the lower echelons of horse-racing, among people for whom the twin spires of Churchill Downs are a distant dream. She has an almost miraculous way of capturing the way horse people think and talk.

The Horse God Built – by Lawrence Scanlan. This one I haven’t read, but it was too tempting to include a book about Secretariat—“the horse God built.” Secretariat won racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973, with track-blistering performances. This nonfiction book is Secretariat as seen through the eyes of his groom and a story of friendship. This is one of six great nonfiction books about racing compiled by Amy Sachs for BookBub.

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. A heartwarming story, this production includes footage shot from the midst of a race—an unforgettable view of why this sport is so dangerous. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%, audiences 76%.

Luck – HBO. For the full immersion experience, try this nine-episode series, developed by David Milch. It’s all-star cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and, again, jockey Gary Stevens (who raced in the 2016 Kentucky Derby at age 53). The three touts, convinced they’re on track for riches, are priceless. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 87%; audiences 78%

****American Nations

American Nations, mapBy Colin Woodard – This 2011 book—a pick of my book club—is a thought-provoking analysis of the different cultural strains, mostly organized along geographic lines, that make up what author Sarah Vowell calls “the (somewhat) United States.” Woodard’s subtitle is “a history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America.” Many of those rivalries, which date to our earliest history, well before the Revolutionary War, have been amplified, not erased, by subsequent events, and help to explain some of the political schisms we see today.

The answer to a frustrated electorate’s “Why can’t our politicians (and voters) ever agree on anything?” is partly that they never did. Of course, aggregate data hide a lot of individual differences, and none of the characterizations Woodard has developed for his eleven regions describe every individual living there, just the region’s general cultural tendencies. Some of his regions cross over into Canada and Mexico too.

The regions, which he says “have been hiding in plain sight throughout our history,” are:

  • Yankeedom began as a “religious utopia in the New England wilderness.” Those early colonies emphasized education, local political control, and efforts aimed at the greater good of the community.
  • New Netherland laid down the cultural underpinnings of greater New York City; a trading society that was multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and committed to freedom of inquiry. Its precepts were memorialized in the Bill of Rights.
  • The Midlands, founded by English Quakers and organized around the middle class people predominantly of German background and moderate political opinions who don’t welcome government intrusion.
  • Tidewater catered to conservative aristocratic elites who were gentleman farmers, strong on respect for authority and dependent on slave labor. It was dominant during the colonial period, but lost its standing by dint of its culture’s inability to expand beyond coastal areas.
  • Greater Appalachia was founded by “wave upon wave of rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands” who in their native lands formed a strong independent spirit, suspicious of aristocratic overlords and social reformers alike (think Mel Gibson in Braveheart).
  • The Deep South, founded by Barbados slave lords, became the bastion of white supremacy and aristocratic privilege. It is the least democratic of the 11 regions while being “the wellspring of African American culture.”
  • New France is an amalgam of the Canadian Province of Québec and some other areas of far eastern Canada as well as the Acadian (“Cajun”) territories of southern Louisiana.
  • El Norte dates to the late 16th century, when the Spanish empire founded missions north into California. It includes Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Texas, as well as northern Mexican states that, Woodard says, are more oriented toward the United States than Mexico City.
  • The Left Coast is a narrow strip from Monterey, California, to Juneau, Alaska, and includes San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. The cities were originally developed by Yankee traders who came by ship and the countryside by overland arrivals from the Appalachian region and the culture today is an amalgam of Yankee idealism and Appalachian independence.
  • The Far West is the only area “where environmental factors truly trumped ethnic ones.” The region is unsuited for traditional farming, but its resources have been exploited by companies headquartered in distant cities and they and the federal government own vast tracts of land. Locals largely oppose federal interference (just in the news again lately), even as they depend on federal dollars.
  • First Nation he defines as a large region in the far north, where the indigenous population has never given up its lands and still employs traditional cultural practices.

Like any analysis intended to look at history through a single lens, Woodard may tailor his arguments to support his approach. Nevertheless, he presents an intriguing hypothesis that carries the ring of truth. In this political season, many of the old antagonisms and patterns he describes are newly visible and, frankly, any cogent explanation of why Americans do some of the things we do is welcome!

Asian Immigrants’ Tales

suitcase, Asian

adapted from Roger Wagner, creative commons license

The recent success of the movie Brooklyn has reminds us of the universality of immigrant stories in American history (even as anti-immigrant, anti-refugee positions characterize the political discourse). While the immigrant experience is a common thread running through our national character, and the experiences of Irish and Italian immigrants relatively well known, each country’s immigrant story is in many ways as unique as the person and family who dons this new cultural garment.

Shawna Yang Ryan, writing for LitHub (“From There to Here: Five Essential Tales of Immigration”) says “Immigration is anything but pedestrian. To displace one’s self in adulthood, to uproot, to leave behind ways of speaking, moving, being that are second nature is a feat of true grit.” She tells of her own mother’s move to the United States from Taiwan after marrying an American GI, which helped inspire her novel Green Island. Among the tales from other immigrants that she recommends are:

  • Carlos Bulosan’s autobiographical America Is in the Heart, about the struggles and prejudices faced by Filipino farm workers. They worked in America legally (and, by the way, served in the U.S. military), but, says Ryan, were barred from citizenship. His book has been called a brown-skinned Grapes of Wrath.
  • The Namesake, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, about the Ganguli family’s move from Kolkata (Calcutta) to Massachusetts and the inter-generational rifts that creates. Pulitzer Prize-winner Lahiri has now taken displacement one step further, living part-time in Italy and writing in that language
  • The “graceful essays” by Andrew Lam, collected in Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, not only examine what it’s like to come to American, but also the experience of a return visit to Vietnam

On this  theme, I would add these classic award-winners from my bookshelf:

  • Anne Fadiman’s non-fiction The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, the tragic consequences for a Hmong family, whose child is afflicted with epilepsy, when their traditional beliefs collide with modern medicine. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1997)
  • The unforgettable memoir, The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston, relates her “girlhood among ghosts”—both her female relatives’ ghosts from China and the New World ghosts she encounters: Policeman Ghosts, Social Worker Ghosts, Garbage Ghosts, and Wino Ghosts. (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1976)
  • Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker—one of the early books selected for community-wide reading—about Korean American Henry Park, the “perpetual outsider.” (PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel, 1996)
  • Asian American Dreams, by award-winning journalist Helen Zia describes the transformation of Asian Americans from a small and largely invisible minority to a presence in virtually every facet of American life.
  • In the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Korean American businesses were especially targeted for destruction, with some 1500 looted and destroyed. Blue Dreams, by Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, explores the reasons Koreans were singled out and what happened in the aftermath.
  • The classic Strangers from a Different Shore, by historian Ronald Takaki, lays out the successive waves of Asian immigration in American history, with each nationality’s experience taking place in a different context.

Reader Question:

What favorite books would you recommend that tell the immigrant story?

The Witches are Back

Puritans, Salem witch trials, The Crucible

(photo: Len “Doc” Radin, Creative Commons license)

Right on time for Halloween is a new book about the tragedy of the Salem witch trials. The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff describes how—at the behest mostly of hysterical young girls—19 men and women in the Massachusetts colony were tried, convicted, and hanged for witchcraft. The punishment for a 75-year-old man was being crushed to death with stones: “More weight,” he legendarily cried. Two guilty dogs also were executed. In other words, plenty of wrongheadedness was going around that has never been satisfactorily explained or completely understood. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis, “The Witches is the fullest and finest story ever told about Salem in 1692.”

Schiff’s September 7 New Yorker article about how the Puritans got so far off track focused much attention on the educated members of the colony, who were as caught up in the events as anyone, and especially the role of prominent ministers and intellectuals Cotton Mather and his father Increase, president of Harvard. The two had some different reactions to the hysteria, though Cotton Mather believed “he had made a case for prosecuting the guilty, his father for protecting the innocent. Were they not saying the same thing?”

It will be interesting to read Schiff’s book to find out to what extent she subscribes—if at all—to various alternative theories about the phenomenon, one of which is that a covetous desire for wealthier Salemites property was at its root. Many years ago, I read Joe Klein’s biography of Woody Guthrie, who suffered from Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder that can cause an afflicted person to writhe uncontrollably and to appear wild and violent in speech and movement. In an afterword, the author reported genealogical research on Guthrie’s family, which he said revealed his ancestors included several of the condemned witches.

Of course, the practice and perils of the witchhunt haven’t died. Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, in the guise of looking back to the late 1600’s, was written to demonstrate how it can reappear wearing modern-day political garb. A thoughtful reconsideration of 1692, such as Schiff’s book provides, is timely anew.