did not finish: Not a Gentleman’s Work: The Untold Story of a Gruesome Murder at Sea and the Long Road to Truth by Gerard Koeppel

I quit just over halfway through this work of history/investigative writing/true crime. In 1896, a small sailing ship left Boston headed for Argentina with a cargo of lumber. There were twelve people aboard: the captain and his wife, a paying passenger, and a small crew. Within the first week, three of the twelve had been hacked to death with an axe. One of the crew was convicted and served time and was later pardoned. Koeppel leans heavily toward the paying passenger as the true murderer: a silver-spoon Harvard dropout and drunk with some odd behaviors. But in the end, the ‘long road to truth’ remains unfinished; we don’t know what really happened on board the Herbert Fuller.

It sounded up my alley, but this slim history threw me in a couple of ways. Koeppel’s tone varies from the meticulously detailed chronology to the sensationalist crowing of what can only have been. Here is neither Erik Larson’s novelistic telling of well-documented histories, nor the measured and transparent speculations of literary writers like Kushner, Kupperman, Monroe, and Wood.

Koeppel’s standard of proof is not my own. For my money, he puts rather too much faith in the eyewitness accounts of discombobulated sailors, chicken-scratched down by their fellows, none of whom spoke English as a first language, and now viewed at a distance of more than a century. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate in any case. To point to inconsistencies in records such as these and claim them as proof of dishonesty seems unreasonable. I was bemused by a preoccupation with who had children and whether they in turn had children: the continuing line of the key players seems important to Koeppel in a way I don’t comprehend.

As usual, your mileage may vary, but this is not for me.


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