Novelist Finney (Time and Again, The Night People) had intended to assemble a ""light, entertaining bedside volume"" of intriguing events of the last century until he began researching the murder of New York doctor Harvey Burdell, a story ""so strange and ex plex, so sensational and endlessly surprising, that it astonishes me yet,"" Thus he has retold that story--along with another 1857 headliner, the sinking of the Central America--complete with reproductions of woodcut illustrations from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly and the like. The Burdell case almost defies summarization, too. Briefly, however, Burdell, a middle-aged confirmed bachelor, took up with one Emma Cunningham, a widow with several children and a murky past. Soon she and her brood had leased most of the doctor's house, and began taking in an odd group of boarders, including a man named Eckel who arrived with 21 canaries, liked to wear disguises, am seemed rather friendly with Emma. Then things turned really strange: Burdell told friends he feared for his life; Emma and someone she claimed was Burdell got married; and one night not long afterward the doctor was brutally stabbed to death. After a bungled coroner's inquest, Emma and Eckel were charged with murder, but Emma be the rap and the case against Eckel was dropped. The end? Far from it. The devious Emma claimed Burdell's estate as his spouse, and was promptly delivered of what she said was his child. ""Delivered"" is the operative word, however, since the newborn baby was given to her by a physician who feigned complicity in Emma's scheme, tipped off the police and exposed the sham. Newspapers like the Tribune and the Times had a field day with this bizarre story and, working from these sources, Finney retells it with considerable gusto and a good feel for the small details of 19th-century life. In the wreck of the Central America, bound for New York with more than six hundred passengers and over a million dollars in California gold, Finney finds a tale ""alive with human behavior and the kind of powerful personality peculiar. . . to the nineteenth century"": valiant efforts against a severe tropical storm; passengers throwing their gold dust away to facilitate swimming; a courageous captain who went down with his ship; and the ordeal of the survivors, some adrift on rafts for as much as nine days off the Florida coast. Though the book seems thrown together--nothing, aside from the year of occurrence, links the Burdell story and the Central America saga (not to mention some very short pieces added)--the result is offbeat, vivid, and entertaining.