Skull in the Ashes written by Peter Kaufman


University of Iowa Press
Publication date – 15 September 2013

ARC from NetGalley

1.5 stars out of 5

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero” Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Perhaps this is a strange quote to use at the beginning of a review, however, it summarises my feelings perfectly at the end of this book. Skull in the Ashes caught my eye because the cover art told me that inside was a world of murder, mystery, intrigue, and a gold rush manhunt but the outcome was weak, bland and problematic. Allow me to explain.

In 1897 the general store in Walford, Iowa, belonging to Frank Novak, burns to the ground. When the ashes are examined the charred remains of a body are found and it is discovered there are two possible victims, Frank Novak or Ed Murray. New forensic procedures and witness testimony determine the victim to be Murray. This discovery, circumstances of the night, combined with the three separate life insurance policies owned by Novak, ensure that a manhunt ensues to capture and prosecute the suspected murderer.  It is at this point where the real problems with the text start to develop.

Kaufman, perhaps from a lack of editorial direction, often includes information which seems irrelevant to the overall progress of the story. Multiple instances of this occur; the first one that truly bothered me was the repetitive references made to mosquitoes. The second occurred shortly after. Kaufman introduces a woman “…with the lilting Irish name of Sadie O’Hara…” (31%) and in the following paragraph writes, “O’Hara was said to have information on Novak and Jack Swift…but when Perrin asked her about these two men, she replied that she had not seen either one in Dawson City.” My interpretation of this statement is that she did not actually know who Novak or Swift were. Compounding my issue with this statement are three things; why the reader needs to be informed of her nationality, why it’s important for her to be included though she has no information and why she is named when the man who confirms Novak’s identity is anonymous and remains so despite the footnote. Compounding this are the segments of text which appear to be almost identical to earlier portions bar a few textual changes. This repetition made me reflect on who Kaufman’s intended audience is.

There also seemed to be a distinct ethnocentric element to the text. For example, “The Chilkoot were a whipcord-tough group of men and women,” (24%); the generalisation of other First Nations people as “Indians” – correct for the historical context but inappropriate in the 21st century, especially for a University publication. The, already mentioned reference to the Irish Sadie O’Hara and a reference to the German Nels Degn and his “strange sounding” name. It is interesting to note some of the other “strange” names recorded in the text but are not drawn to the reader’s attention because of the assumption they are “American”.  Let me be clear – I am not making any accusation of racism, merely reflecting on the inconsistencies.

To be perfectly honest, this book is not “an impressive piece of historical detective work” as Robert Loerzel states nor is it, as Patrick Millikan writes “…a gripping page turner.” For me, it was a dreadful disappointment. Kaufman has taken a fascinating era of history, which could have covered and given so much and turned it into a chequered, rather dull set of notes. It is unfortunate that this reads like an unedited proof. Perhaps this book would have been better if it were a history of the American penitentiary system in Ohio during the late 19th century/early 20th century with the Novak murder as a case study. Skull in the Ashes suffers from what seems to be a lack of editorial direction.

I truly do dislike writing negative reviews as Kaufman states Skull in the Ashes is the work of six years and I can appreciate the hard work and effort he has put into researching and writing this finished product.

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