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A well-researched, deftly written, if somehow lightweight overview of history’s open questions.

Aron (Unsolved Mysteries of American History, 1997) ranges across the millennia to cull 30 perplexing incidents, using his depictions of these conundrums to delve into appropriate social and historical backgrounds and to present unified portraits of confusing, ill-recorded interludes. In brief chapters ranging from “Were the Neanderthals Our Ancestors?” to “Was Gorbachev Part of the August Coup?,” Aron examines the unanswered questions surrounding the incident under scrutiny and explores the various competing theories that have developed over time, reaching back to a variety of often obscure sources and thinkers. Thus, in asking whether Mozart was poisoned, Aron considers the likely suspects—the jealous composer Salieri, the Freemasons—before concluding that most likely the “bleeding” techniques of contemporary physicians contributed to his death. More abstract archaeological riddles (such as the mysteries concerning the authorship of Stonehenge, the Pyramids, the Easter Island statues, and the actual location of ancient Troy) are dealt with by a careful inventory of the theories that have been advocated over the centuries (and which were usually disproved by succeeding generations of ponderers). Grisly contemporary mysteries appear too, such as “Could the Titanic Have Been Saved?” (depicting the evidently craven behavior of the California’s captain) and “Did Hitler Murder His Niece?” (which explores whether Hitler’s strange demands drove his niece to suicide, and what personal secrets, if any, are here revealed about his spiral into evil). The brief essays are bolstered by the inclusion of rare illustrations and annotated lists of recommended primary texts. Although the author’s is amusing and precise and gleans greater conclusions from each mystery, the very brevity of his chapters limits the effectiveness of his gambit—as the various historical conundrums seem to run together.

That said, this is certainly an efficient and colorful overview of a wide spectrum of enigmas throughout history, many of which (“Did Jesus Die on the Cross?”) remain wellsprings of controversy and should appeal to readers with more curiosity than time.

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 2000
ISBN: 0-471-35190-3
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Wiley
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2000