IF EVERY true-crime novel were written with the context and care of Duel with the Devil, grocery store checkout aisles would be much better places to buy a book.
Of course, the crime excavated here is an awfully dusty one. Written by Paul Collins, a Portland State University professor occasionally featured as "the literary detective" on NPR's Weekend Edition, Duel with the Devil digs into the death of Elma Sands, a young woman whose body was found in a well in New York in January of 1800—the first days of a new century in a young country.
Collins' meticulously researched account draws from newspaper and first-hand reports to recreate the circumstances surrounding Elma's death. A sickly young Quaker woman, she lived with her aunt and uncle in a boarding house; a fellow boarder, carpenter Levi Weeks, stood accused of her murder.
In addition to the occasionally salacious details attending the discovery of a pretty young woman's body, Collins finds fascinating context in the issues of the day. Weeks' defense team included bitter rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who improbably joined forces to defend the young man. Hamilton and Burr were political opponents; Hamilton was a staunch Federalist, while Burr was a Republican supporter of states' rights. Moreover, New York at the time was struggling to improve the city's water supply, and Burr's own company owned the very well Elma's body was found in. (Does anyone else still think of that Got Milk? commercial every time they hear Burr's name? "Awwen Buhhh"? Anyone?)
Thanks to the efforts of a diligent and motivated court clerk named William Coleman, the case was the "first fully documented trial in US history," Collins writes, providing a detailed look at the showdown between a young prosecutor and a team of experienced, intimidating defense attorneys. Moreover, Collins goes a step further than the courts to plausibly identify Elma's murderer.
The moral here is that history is interesting, and in Collins' hands it unfolds as tantalizingly as any mystery—a little foreshadowing here, a touch of villainy there, and the colorful context of a nascent country still struggling to define itself.