Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery by Paul Collins
Broadway Books, 2014, 304 pages
Like plenty of other red-blooded Americans, I fell into the hole that is Hamilton: An American Musical in the early months of summer 2016. Also like plenty of the aforementioned Americans, I wanted to get my hands on Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton – you know, the biography that inspired the musical. I have a lot of library cards. I put a hold on every single eBook version that I could find in those library systems and bided my time. But it wasn’t enough, so I went in search of more Hamilton lore and came upon Paul Collins’ Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery.
Let me start with that title. If I didn’t know any better, I might guess it was the name of a Fall Out Boy song. And not only this, but it’s also incredibly misleading. While Collins does discuss Hamilton and Burr and their strategy for tackling the trial of Levi Weeks, this is but a small fraction of the contents of the book. The sensationalism here got a little out of hand and ends up leading the reader to a book that is not as advertised. Given that anyone who picks up this book is likely to be at least aware of Hamilton and Burr’s tumultuous relationship, Collins spends shockingly little word capital on their relationship outside of this trial, which would have not only been relevant, but useful in understanding the specifics of their interaction during this period.
Collins sets the stage for these events beautifully with specifics that can make the reader feel like they’re reading a novel. He certainly did his research, digging into the diaries of small players in the story or even just of local citizens who had no connection to the trial. But the legal approach and technique of Hamilton and Burr is glossed over, leaving a narrative that is deeply interesting for people looking for a vivid depiction of post-Revolutionary era New York but less so for those seeking only what the face value of the title describes.
The problem with reading nonfiction on an eReader is, you don’t necessarily know what percentage of the book is notes, so you don’t know if the end of the book will actually come at 78% or 94% — and that makes a big difference. The conclusion of the trial occurs about halfway through the book (and really doesn’t begin until at least a quarter or third into it – everything else prior sets the stage with the yellow fever, Burr’s well and his therefore potentially unethical and impartial connections to the defendant, and so on) and each of the following chapters is written like some grand conclusion. So it was with the rest of the book, I read it as if waiting for the other shoe to drop which was pretty dreadful. The content in those sections was certainly interesting and well-written otherwise, but as I kept anticipating a true end to the book, each time I came to the end of a chapter and began my happy sigh of having completed another book, I was robbed when, to be sure that the notes began on the following page, found the beginning of yet another chapter. I imagine this isn’t as much of a problem with the print book, though I maintain that the style of writing lends itself to conclusion for each of the chapters following the end of the trial.
Collins’ work could have been more focused here and certainly advertised in a more accurate fashion. But the tidbits and details throughout the book make it such an interesting read that it moves quickly and paints, at least for me, a new light onto post-Revolutionary America. While I was left wanting for something truer to what the title promised, I was ultimately happy with what I got when I separated the work from its title. Whether you’re a Hamilhead, you’re interested in history, or you’re just looking to step outside the usual novel for something compelling but different, Duel with the Devil will satisfy you.
❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤