Dead Certainties as Detective/Crime Novel

The most fascinating insight into the book and the American Experience documentary on Dead Certainties was when one of the commentators made the connection between the mid-nineteenth century public’s early encounters with the genre of crime fiction, and the trial of Dr. Webster for the Parkman murder. She noted that the real story of the trial and its protagonists and antagonists had all of the elements of detective or crime fiction as it was developing at the time. The significance of this statement brought the issue of fictionalization by Schama full circle. The events surrounding the murder were real, and the written as well as physical sources consulted by historians were authentic. The surrounding human response, both at the time and today, involved imagination and fictionalization. Literate observers at the time, which may have included journalists who covered the trial, had been exposed to the elements of crime fiction—a new and stimulating genre of literature. Perhaps some of its elements came from broadside sheets—penny news sheets that contained quick narratives, or from journalistic stories built around standard elements. According to the observation shared in the film about crime fiction, then, the public would have projected these elements onto the story that was unfolding about the murder. This, the observer implies, may have influenced the outcome of the trial. Fiction affecting history.

Simon Schama’s fictionalized historical version today may be seen as projecting these elements of a well-worn genre back into the story even more strongly. This is perhaps most evident in the conclusion to the film and the book, in which he feels it necessary to say what he thinks happened—to reconstruct the murder scene according to his reading of the historical evidence. This is a very common aspect of crime fiction. The writer cannot leave the audience without solving the mystery. Historical studies may not always be so neat, but Schama doesn’t leave much room for any other outcome but the one he postulates. In the documentary, all we get for the alternative (Webster was not the murderer) is a brief statement by an armchair historian. It is not very convincing. So, Schama’s view of the story prevails, both in the book and the movie.

The background segment to the documentary, “Behind the Scenes,” tells us that the style of videography chosen by the directors is reminiscent of film noir. So the viewer is also being intentionally influenced (manipulated?) to view the historical incident through this lens. Other conventions were followed as well, especially the way in which the characters were introduced, their possible motives and personalities that led them into the position they inhabit in the story, the various props, vocational aspects, and so on, even to their dress. So, with this circular observation about fiction influencing the historical event, and Schama’s fictionalization along the lines of crime novels, the contemporary reader/viewer is left in the middle of a dilemma.

As for comparison of the film with the book, I find that the film did a much better job of bringing to life the social and cultural history of the period. Schama’s personal style in the book got in the way of that—he is too much in the story. The film-makers, however, skillfully wove this aspect of the story into the documentary. As a part of the American Experience series, this is to be expected, but it is a particularly well done aspect of the film. It answered the “so what” question in many ways. The historical issues that the book raises became very graphic as well—such as the legal aspects that applied to the use of forensic evidence, the lack of testimony by the accused, and the standard of evidence. Schama’s use of thick description obscured some of these points. It seemed sometimes as if he was channeling Charles Dickens in his character portraits, for example, of the lawyers for the defense and the prosecution.

A final note on the book and the film. Wisely, the filmmakers resisted any temptation to include Part I of Dead Certainties, which was the story of General Wolfe and historian Francis Parkman’s telling of his story, as well as the digression (interesting though it was) into Benjamin West’s dramatic painting of Wolfe’s death, and the whole business of dramatic, authentic, and classical models for those theatrical history paintings that have mangled history by appearing in textbooks for generations. It was amusing to learn that convention dictated that the characters in such historical paintings should appear in classical dress—togas and chitons. This would have saved generations of students from graphic editors of textbooks who put these paintings as authentic, period illustrations of the events they stand for. They were misled into thinking that there was no—or only minimal—theatricality and artifice because they were wearing period costume. As for Schama, however, it makes little or no sense that he has put this segment into the book about the Webster/Parkman affair. The connection with Boston and with historians, as well as with some of the characters’ families, is too tenuous. The linkage with temperament and obsession is another possibility (Francis Parkman sharing Wolfe’s infirmities, for example). I can only wonder if Schama is perhaps indicating that he, too, has some affinity with either Parkman or Webster that made him delve into their stories. That is not a matter of great importance, however, and mercifully, it was not included in the documentary. It detracted from the book, and should have been a journal article, perhaps, for Schama.

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