An encyclopedia of “individuals who have each somehow changed the course of world events,” in which murderers and criminals find prominent places.
Award-winning historian and novelist Montefiore (Red Sky at Noon, 2018, etc.)—assisted by Bew (History and Foreign Policy/King’s Coll. London; Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee, 2016, etc.), Frampton (Modern History/Queen Mary, Univ. of London; The Muslim Brotherhood and the West, 2018, etc.), Jones (The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors, 2017, etc.), and Renton (Those Wild Wyndhams: Three Sisters at the Heart of Power, 2018)—has assembled a wide-ranging compendium of short biographical essays of nearly 200 men (and a few women) who “created the world we live in today.” Admitting that the list is “totally subjective,” Montefiore tends toward the monstrous and murderous. While many entries are predictable, including canonical philosophers and religious figures, political leaders, and too few artists and scientists, some choices may baffle readers. Why Jack the Ripper, for example, but not Thomas Edison? Why Al Capone but not Sigmund Freud? Basil II, a ruler of the Byzantine empire, impresses the author as “the ultimate hero-monster,” a man with an “explosive temper” who earned the epithet “the Bulgar Slayer.” Vlad the Impaler was “a murdering sadist who displayed cruelty so savage that he inspired the legend of Dracula.” Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov “organized and coordinated Stalin’s Great Terror, during which a million innocent victims were shot and millions more exiled to concentration camps.” Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, a Soviet secret policeman, was a “psychopathic rapist and enthusiastic sadist” as well as “a perverted thug.” Even when choosing figures from the arts, Montefiore tends toward the swashbuckling (Byron, Hemingway, Picasso) or tormented (Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec). Jane Austen seems out of place in their company. Although the entries are lively and informative, the author does not make the case that all of these individuals deserve recognition among historical giants such as Galileo and Newton, Gandhi and Churchill, or even Elvis Presley.
A somewhat useful historical reference driven by an idiosyncratic definition of “titan.”