- Thrillers, Detective Stories, and Bloody Narratives
As I read Beverly Gage’s engaging, smart, insightful, and crisply written new book, I couldn’t stop thinking about J. Anthony Lukas. Before he took his own life in 1997, Lukas stood tall as one of the nation’s preeminent historians. Trained as a journalist, with apprenticeships at the Baltimore Sun and New York Times, he wrote sprawling, dramatic stories for a wide, yet still well-informed audience. He wrote epic tales built around fully fleshed-out characters, both the famous and the not-so-famous. The men and women that interested him the most typically found themselves embroiled in and affected by revealing and explosively violent moments: the death of a troubled New England socialite lost in the darkness of the counterculture, the vicious opposition to busing in Boston, and the 1905 murder of an Idaho governor.1
In his essays and books, Lukas crafted what Gage has called in another context (borrowing a phrase from the historian Robert Darnton) “incident stories.”2 Lukas would take a moment, a flash point from the past, freeze it on the page, then show how the people caught up in the incident got there: how their experiences—and even more, how their ideas about justice, race, and class—brought them to this point and conditioned them to respond and think about the event the way they did. Recreating this milieu and with it an emotional connection with the past, much more than contributing directly to historiography, was his intention and mode of operation.
When it came to the storytelling itself, Lukas took long, meandering trips deep into the past. Lukas was, in fact, the master of the backward journey. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning study of the Boston busing battles, Common Ground, he told the richly detailed and carefully documented stories of three families—one upper-middle-class white, one working-class white, and one African American—ensnarled in the conflict. To explain the thoughts and actions of his hard-scrabble, reactionary white Charlestown characters, he went back to Ireland: to the bogs, to the famine, and to the heavy-handed rule of the [End Page 114] countryside in the seventeenth century. Again, in his version of history, what matters in the past is how characters—people—came to understand the world they lived in at the moment that Lukas is trying to comprehend, although he usually tied his books up—as his subtitles suggested—in some larger, somewhat vague moral lesson about the nature of class or race in America.
In her new book, Gage works in a similar, if significantly slimmed-downed, fashion. Following the incident story arc and plotline that Lukas used in his very last book, Big Trouble, Gage’s The Day Wall Street Exploded is, in many ways, a traditional detective story (and it is more like this than it is a traditional university press historiographic monograph). Gage starts with several bodies and devotes most of her book to trying to solve the case. Along the way, she draws on familiar understandings of the past to tell us about the complex motivations and rich backgrounds of her characters.
The story begins just before noon on September 16, 1920. Someone steers a horse-drawn cart up to the sidewalk outside the headquarters of the financial capital of the United States, the House of Morgan. Just as the driver parked, thousands and thousands of office workers, clerks, and stockbrokers criss-crossed the streets and strolled the sidewalks, grabbing something to eat and hurriedly doing errands on their lunch breaks. As the clock inched toward twelve, a bang sounded. Dynamite launched hundreds and hundreds of lethal shards of metal shrapnel through the air. The projectiles tore at people’s limbs. Walls crumbled and glass shattered. Moans and wails could be heard for blocks. When the police and doctors made their final tally, they added up twenty-six dead and many more maimed and injured.
Given the proximity of...