Thursday, April 2, 2015

A good old-fashioned murderbook

I have to admit that when I hear the word "academic" used with a negative connotation, it makes me feel a little downhearted. I get that not everyone enjoys school things, but I have always enjoyed school things and even when a subject seems narrow or uninteresting to me, I enjoy enough niche things to appreciate other people's interest. And then all my close college friends went to grad school (I think 50% of the people at my 21st birthday have now finished their PhDs), and my own department is so friendly that I've had remarkably little exposure to conniving, petty, self-important types. Plus, a lot of grad students develop awesome hobbies and side projects in grad school (not me, I'm lame). When I think "academics" I think adorably nerdy people who are about as intimidating as a muppet.

And when I think "academic books" my heart warms, because what is better than an academic book? Academic books have a clearly defined focus, they delve deeply into their subjects, and they provide you with all the information you need to judge them -- or if they don't, then there's your assessment right there. But I appreciate that for plenty of people none of this is true, and alas, "academic", which is a rather accurate descriptor for me, is not a positive for the general public.

All of this is a long lead-in to an excellent book that strikes a happy medium between academic and general interest. The University of Chicago Press has clearly pulled out the stops to make Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago accessible for the general book-reading public. It's very reasonably priced, for one thing, and has a catchy title. It has maps, illustrations, a cast of characters, and a glossary. There are no superscript footnotes, and the technical parts of the introduction (historiography, methodology) have been pulled out and placed in a separate section at the end. It starts with an attention-grabbing introduction and carries on from there. Very easy to read. At the same time, it's well researched and all those important citations are there as endnotes, formatted in a gratifyingly efficient way for those of us who like that kind of thing. Seriously, I hate endnotes but these are very easy to use.

The book itself, as the subtitle suggests, tells the story of a sensational murder that took place in Chicago in the late nineteenth century. It's very much a narratively-driven book: it introduces the players, describes the victim's disappearance, the discovery of the body, investigation, and trial, before concluding with some considerations about the legacy and impact of the case. Now, murders are fairly interesting in themselves, but this was a case of a member of a secret Irish republican society being bumped off by his rivals within the group, so the story encompasses terrorism and financial misdeeds as well as nationalism and racism. Oh! And also the interplay of the press and the justice system. There's a lot here, is what I'm saying, but it's all straightforward and readable. If you like historical murder things -- and I know you do -- you'll like this.

(PS. I am delighted to find I already have a tag for "murder".)


  1. This sounds great! You're right about the stigma of "academic," and I'm glad to hear this book does it right. Yay for you, championing it.