Title: 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
Author: Paul Collins
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Review: I’m not ashamed to admit that I picked up Duel With the Devil because I loved the subtitle. What is not to love about “The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery”? That makes me imagine Hamilton and Burr dressing up like Batman and Robin and giving each other high fives all day.
In 1800, the United States was still a young country. In New York, one of the republic’s most politically charged cities, lawyers Hamilton and Burr often found themselves on opposite sides in the courtroom and in politics. The two were forced to work together, however, when the body of a Quaker woman, Elma Sands, was fished out of the Manhattan Well — a venture Burr was politically and financially invested in. The suspected murder, Levi Weeks, had a wealthy brother who could afford to hire both attorneys, creating a legal dream team.
In Duel With the Devil Collins recounts the months leading up to Elma’s murder, followed by the investigation and trial. Along the way, he peppers the book with a wealth of historical detail, putting this particular crime in context and fully using the wealth of sources available from what the book says was the first fully recorded murder trial in the country. The best part about this book for me wasn’t even the sensational murder mystery, it was the level of historical detail that Collins went into
As much as I love a good historical true crime story, the best part of this book was the level of historical detail that Collins included. He paints a rich portrait of life in New York City at this time that kept me interested even when the build to the crime and trial moved slowly.
I only have two small critiques of the book that kept me from flat-out loving it. The first was the structure. In order to build some suspense into the trial, Collins leaves out some key details when chronicling the investigation. By holding them back, he gets to offer them as “bombshells” during the trial portion of the story. I think that made figuring out what exactly happened a little bit confusing.
The cover copy also suggests that “the Case of Elma Sands will surely come to a close with this book, which delivers shocking new information about the real killer.” The evidence that Collins presents near the conclusion of the book does offer some ideas about who the killer might be, but “shocking new information” really is an oversell that was a little disappointing, especially given that the book is good enough on it’s own without marketing folks trying to jazz it up even further.
That said, Duel With the Devil was a fun read, especially if you enjoy historical crime stories. The level of detail is great, and despite a little sensationalizing, Collins does tell a great story. Reading this book made me even more excited to read another Collins’ book about the golden age of the tabloid wars — The Murder of the Century.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!