Duncan Wall: The Ordinary Acrobat

When John Major, who started his career in a bank, became British prime minister in 1990, newspaper articles recounted his father’s early days as a music-hall performer. Mr. Major, the wits quipped, was the only person who ever ran away from the circus to join a team of accountants.

Duncan Wall is the anti-Major: Born in Milwaukee, the son of accountants, he fell in love with the circus on a trip to Paris as a college student. This was not your usual red-hatted extravaganza but a particularly French form of “new” circus, with acrobats who quote Proust. The Midwestern boy had preferred Disneyland, but the theater-major adult was now hooked, and by dint of a Fulbright scholarship he returned to enroll in Paris’s École Nationale des Arts du Cirque. Since then he has continued his academic love affair by teaching circus history and criticism at Montreal’s École Nationale de Cirque, Canada’s main circus school.

In this chronicle of the circus past and present, Mr. Wall delightfully revisits lost celebrities of the 19th century: Mme Saqui, the French rope-dancer, in her white tulle skirt covered in blue-spangled stars; Isaac Van Amburgh, the American animal trainer who was reputedly the first man to put his head in a lion’s mouth; and William Wallett, an English clown who wowed Paris with Shakespeare burlesques. (“Is this a beefsteak I see before me?”) He visits the great circus venues of the past, including Paris’s Boulevard du Temple, which in the 19th century was the home of the Théâtre des Funambules, famous for acrobatic pantomime. (It seems an opportunity missed not to mention the film “Les Enfants du Paradis” (1945), in which Jean-Louis Barrault depicted Baptiste Debureau, the great mime of the early 19th century.) And he puts into context how the contemporary art-and-entertainment spectacle that is Canada’s Cirque du Soleil came to be the phenomenon it is.

The circus was invented in the 1760s by a British cavalry officer, Philip Astley, who started with trick riding, moved on to “hippodrama” (plays in which horses took center stage) and established many of the basics of circuses, including brass-band marching tunes, a broad center ring and even the “big top” itself. Only when P.T. Barnum retired from his American Museum in New York and went on the road, in the 1880s, did the circus take the form we know: that mixture of short acts, animals, skills such as juggling and tumbling, and, most important, the gigantification of everything.

A new technology, the railways, enabled circuses to travel the world, reaching ever more people. But technology also killed the “old” art. As the performers continually found new audiences, there was no reason for them to develop their acts: The audience was new each week, not the show. Ernest Hemingway wrote that the circus is a “happy dream” but, as Mr. Wall suggests, in a dream the dreamer reconnects with what he already knows. “You didn’t go to a circus, you went to the circus,” said one historian about Barnum-esque circuses: They were, in truth, all the same.

With ever newer technology—film, then television—the circus as grand spectacle was doomed, as fantasy worlds could be found more easily, and more cheaply, at the cinema or even at home. Cars, and urban sprawl, also devastated the old means of drumming up excitement and a sense of community—parades and the big top became meaningless in towns with no center.

In Europe, where smaller circuses worked locally, innovation remained a primary requirement for each company, to lure in repeat customers. It was in altering the predictable formula of touring circuses that the new-style French circus—the kind that beguiled Mr. Wall—came into its own. It features longer pieces than the episodic performances of the traditional three-ring venue, along with narrative sections and musical interludes.

The Cirque du Soleil is a return, in many ways, to P.T. Barnum’s gigantism, with its 4,000 staff, revenues nearing $1 billion a year and a dozen touring and permanent shows. To its detractors Cirque du Soleil is Wal-Mart, or Disney DIS +0.83% : the blandification of the circus. In France, by contrast, the circus is considered an art, deserving of subsidy—€9 million annually helps support more than 400 circus companies and more than 150 schools.

It is with these practitioners that Mr. Wall’s interest really lies, with jugglers such as Jay Gilligan, an American who mostly works in Europe, or Jérôme Thomas, a Frenchman who has revolutionized what juggling can be, merging circus skills with existential profundities as only the French can. These men are as far from corporate junkets, or Las Vegas hotels, as it is possible to imagine. They see themselves instead as the inheritors of the great 19th-century traditions, even as they develop productions that push the boundaries of performance history.

Their seriousness of purpose does make one wish, however, that Mr. Wall’s own engagement with the broader sweep of history was a little more robust. Sometimes it sounds as if he is simply repeating ancient press releases without engaging his critical faculties, as when he tells us that the belle-époque juggler Cinquevalli “purchased diamonds for journalists.” Other events are simplified until they become meaningless. A ballet master patronized by Marie Antoinette and the Empress Maria Theresa is really not a good representative of the flattening of the class system. After England’s “Glorious” Revolution, in 1688, the price of horses did not drop until “anyone” could afford one. Workers in Industrial Revolution cities did not live in “ghettoes.”

But when he sticks to his own subject, Mr. Wall allows readers to share his wonder at the circus world’s arcane jargon: a “board muffin” (assistant standing on the top perch to help the trapeze artist) uses a “noodle” (hooked staff) to catch the trapeze. Mr. Wall’s technical descriptions of what happens on a trapeze, or even of how a somersault is turned, make you look afresh at what had previously seemed obvious. And that may be the greatest trick of all.

Lawrence Norfolk: John Saturnall’s Feast

What makes the great novels great? There are as many answers to that question as there are novels. If you narrow the question to “What makes a historical novel great?” the answer that rises to the top is, probably, sense of place. Historical novels create new worlds in our minds, worlds where, even if we know the facts, we don’t know the feel. It is through this type of virtuosic specificity that Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy, now two-thirds complete, established for her readers a newly concrete notion of Tudor England.

Lawrence Norfolk takes a different route. “John Saturnall’s Feast” opens with an almost fairy-tale tone. Packhorses “creep” down the side of a valley, the reader’s distant perspective established by a simple verb. Leading the horses, “a tall figure leaned into the drizzle as if pulling them away from the dark village above.” In three sentences Mr. Norfolk sets out his stall: He will magnify this mysterious world for us, and he will, with an extraordinary use of ordinary language, make us see it not as a historical construct but as a place of wonder.

It is the 1630s and John Sandall is 11 years old. He has lived all his life on the edge of a tiny village in an isolated valley—on the margin of the margins—where his mother is admired and feared as the local wise-woman and midwife. When the village falls under the influence of a Puritan zealot, he and his mother snatch up their scanty valuables—her collecting bag for herbs and her single book—and retreat to Buccla’s Wood, which the locals fear to enter.

These woods are a remnant of a mythical past when “Saturnus’s people” lived and feasted in the valley as equals under Buccla, a beneficent female spirit who ruled after the Romans abandoned Britain. His mother informs John that they are in reality not Sandalls but Saturnalls, descendants of Saturnus and the keepers of the feast. John has powers to match his mother’s: He has merely to breathe in and odors “anchor themselves within him, their invisible trails fanning out around him.” We read of “wild garlic, mulched leaves, a fox den somewhere and a sweeter scent. Fruit blossom, he thought. Then that smell mystery was eclipsed by a larger one. A stranger scent hid among the blossom, sweet and resinous at once. Lilies, John thought, drawing the scent deeper. Lilies mixed with pitch.”

For the book’s first half, Mr. Norfolk’s use of child’s-eye view and lush, incantatory prose give the narrative a hushed air of magic, as though Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” were being recounted by the hero of Patrick Süskind’s “Perfume.” Then, like light through a crack in a wall, the real world breaks in on the boy’s enchanted castle.

John’s skill has gained him work in Buckland manor, home to the lord of the valley, where he is taken under the wing of the master cook. The king, Charles I, visits on the eve of the Civil War, and before long John’s master marches off to fight for his monarch, with the culinary staff trailing behind to service the field kitchens. The war is not recounted in any detail, but British readers only need the place-name “Naseby” to understand that the royalist army will be destroyed.

Here something curious happens. John Saturnall, as a child, lived through his senses. Yet in the second half of the book these senses are abandoned. A camp kitchen must be dense with smells—burning wood, raw and roasting meat, unwashed men and latrines, not to mention pus and blood and death. All this is absent. The descriptions become like soldiers’ temporary encampments, cursorily thrown up by the author and just as speedily torn back down.

Mr. Norfolk has previously published three dense, playful, highly arcane literary novels with multiple storylines. Now he appears to have set himself a new challenge: to tell one single, straightforward story dealing with the most essential human states.

Nowhere does Mr. Norfolk succeed as well as when he is at his most minimalist. When Puritan thugs threaten to cut off John’s hand because he had raised it against one of their own, the entire Buckland kitchen staff volunteers, one by one, “My hand too”—each claiming that it was he who had delivered the blow. This “I am Spartacus” moment could easily have become comic bombast, but Mr. Norfolk merely shows it, then cuts away. At the Battle of Naseby, King Charles’s doomed troops cry “For God and Queen Mary”; behind the lines, those men with no say in their own lives and deaths have a simpler, more heartfelt prayer: that they might live to eat “supper at Buckland.” With three plain words, Mr. Norfolk wrings your heart.

Paul Thomas Murphy: Shooting Victoria

British television has a lot to answer for. From “Upstairs, Downstairs” to “Downton Abbey,” it has perpetrated an image of “historical” Britain as a country filled with a loved, even revered, upper class that gracefully patronizes the lower orders, who in turn are thrilled to roll over and have their tummies tickled by their social superiors. Absent is any sense of political, much less social unrest—there are no bread riots, no Luddites, no machine wreckers. Thus many PBS viewers might be surprised by the violence that accompanied the 19th century’s extreme political instability. And they might be positively shocked to learn that no fewer than seven of Queen Victoria’s subjects made attempts on her life.

In 1812, seven years before Victoria was born, the prime minister, Spencer Perceval, had been assassinated. It was the only political assassination in British history and an indication that the world was hardly a safe place: Between 1830 and 1848 there were seven attempts on Louis-Philippe of France; between 1866 and 1881, six on Alexander II of Russia, the last successful. Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary was murdered in 1898, Umberto of Italy two years later. This is hardly the world of happy, smiling lower orders that we see on the screen.

Television also somehow, magically, makes a single moment stand in for decades, even a century. That Queen Victoria was regarded by most with admiration at the end of her reign, if only for its longevity (63 years, so far the longest in British history), is transformed retrospectively into her being loved and venerated throughout that reign. And this is where problems begin for Paul Thomas Murphy’s entertaining but infuriating “Shooting Victoria.”

The author’s thesis is that the queen’s seven would-be assassins played an integral part in “the great love story between Victoria and the Victorians,” creating a communion between the threatened queen and her sympathetic people. But he skips over the crucial first question: Was there such a love story? He asserts that, from day one, “the public” adored their young queen. At her accession, her popularity was “unparalleled,” he writes. “The nation seemed to share her joy.” In reality, as one diarist noted on the day she ascended the throne in 1837, “the people . . . did not . . . hurrah.”

The arrival of Albert, the German prince whom Victoria married in 1840, is presented in the same fashion. Mr. Murphy depicts the public as full-throatedly for the couple, even as he acknowledges that Albert was initially viewed as an “adventurer.” One of his sources notes, in a passage he leaves uncited, that only a week before the wedding, a “mob” followed the prince down the street, shouting. We don’t know what they shouted, but the plentiful street songs focused on “German sausage”—lewd subtext intended.

As for the so-called assassination attempts, only the fifth, in 1851, put the queen in any danger. In 1840, Edward Oxford, the son of a gold-engraver, who had delusions of leading a new political movement called Young England, shot at the royal carriage as the queen and her consort were taking an airing in the park. Albert’s quick movement to protect the queen, and her own stoicism—she drove to her mother’s house to prove she had not been injured, then calmly resumed her outing in the park—did truly win the admiration of all.

Although Oxford was tried for high treason (he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent the rest of his life locked up), it is likely that his gun had only wadding and no bullets in it. Two years later, this was also the case with John Francis, a failed tobacconist who aimed at Albert and then made a second attempt on Victoria when he was not immediately arrested. At this stage, it was decided that the charge of high treason was encouraging those with a lust for fame, and the next assailant, John William Bean—a cripple who, unable to earn a living, hoped for a life of “luxury” like that of the incarcerated Oxford—was charged only with assault. ¬Except for his target, it was tacitly recognized, he was no different from the children who broke streetlights in order to be jailed for a week, in order to find food and warmth.

In 1849, another starving man, William Hamilton, shot at the queen, and the pattern was interrupted only by Robert Francis Pate, who in 1851 hit the queen with his cane as she was leaving a house in Piccadilly. He was clearly what today would be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. His wealthy family managed to get him transported to Australia; few troubled even to turn out for the trial. Another attempt was made in 1882, by another poor deranged soul, Roderick Maclean, who, when he was not conversing with God, thought “that old lady Mrs. Vic” should have stepped in to support his family when his father lost their money in a bank-crash.

Therefore to reinforce his theory, Mr. Murphy is reduced to presenting a what-if. At the Golden Jubilee in 1887, “what could have been the most serious threat” against the queen, an Irish terrorist act, was planned. On the next page, however, it appears that “there exists no evidence that Clan-na-Gael leaders specified a target.” Despite this, the threat “was certainly real,” the author writes, before acknowledging that one of its leaders was a government informer, and “it is more than likely that he never intended to assist the Jubilee plotters” at all. By this stage, any careful reader has whiplash.

The real pity is that Mr. Murphy is a fine researcher and vivid stylist when he drops his thesis, crafting delightful passages about the intrigues of the royal family and such arcana as the organization of the queen’s household. One department was responsible for cleaning the outside of the windows at Buckingham Palace, another for the insides. They refused to coordinate, and consequently the queen’s windows were always half-dirty.

Hmm, “Cleaning Victoria’s Windows”: I can see the miniseries now.

Why Dickens?

It can scarcely have escaped anyone’s attention that 2013 is the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth – anyone who has not been in a medically induced coma for the past months, that is. If you missed the last two biographies (one, by Michael Slater, jumping the gun in 2009, another, by Claire Tomalin, published a couple of months ago), then there is another coming along in a couple of weeks, by the actor Simon Callow, who has also been performing his seasonal ‘one-man theatrical extravaganza’ adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Or you could watch the current BBC’s production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. That is, if you’ve finished watching their version of Great Expectations. Or listening to the radio retelling of A Tale of Two Cities, or learning about his favourite songs on Charles Dickens’ iPod (yes, really), or exploring an Indian reimagining, The Mumbai Chuzzlewits. Or watching Armando Iannucci telling us why he was funny, or Sue Perkins on his poor, much-maligned wife, on Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas. If you’re more academically inclined, you can present a video about Dickens at a free online conference. That is, if you don’t want to wait, and pay for a cinema ticket to the soon-to-be released Great Expectations with Helena Bonham-Carter, paying for it with the new £2-coin featuring – who else? Or, who knows, let’s be crazy, you could even read one of the books.

In fact, if you’re interested in any art form – television, film, theatre, literature, cinema, radio – you can’t miss Dickens. The question is, why? Thackeray’s 200th was in 2011, and I don’t remember this cavalcade. In fact, I distinctly remember an entire lack of cavalcade. Part of the answer, of course, is sheer familiarity. Dickens has been turned into theatre, into film and television regularly, ever since the first Oliver Twist adaptation in 1838, months before Dickens had actually finished writing the serial, so the play and the novel had different endings. And so everyone knows, or thinks they know, the plots and the characters, even if they don’t know the books. (If I had a pound for every person who misquotes Oliver Twist’s ‘Please, sir, I want some more,’ as ‘Can I have some more?’ I would be rich enough to pay for my own adaptation of Oliver Twist.)

And Dickens is international. Be it As Aventuras de Oliver Twist from Brazil, or Twist Olivér in Hungary, or Italy’s Storia di un orfano, everyone knows Oliver and Fagin, not to mention David Copperfield, Mr Micawber, Edwin Drood, Mr Pickwick and the rest of the familiar troop. Or they know about them. Or their names. Or the plots, sort of. Can you name the characters in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair? A few may dredge up Becky Sharp. Never mind the characters, can you name another Thackeray novel? Thought not.

So part of the argument for the Dickens-fest we are enjoying-enduring is circular: we like Dickens because he is popular, he is popular because we like him. But there is another, deeper, and more important, reason that Dickens is popular, one that resonates particularly in our own time, and that is the story of his own life.

Dickens, as everybody knows, was a lower-middle-class boy made good after a dreadful childhood, when his father was imprisoned for debt and he was sent to work in a blacking-factory. True, no one really has much idea of what a blacking-factory is these days, but we’re unanimous in knowing it is pretty bad.

And bad it was. Dickens was taken out of school when he was twelve, and he worked pasting labels on blacking (which is shoe-polish, by the way) pots, possibly for as much as a year, before his father, finances temporarily recovered, returned him to school. But he left school for good only two years later, aged fifteen, and went to work as a lawyer’s junior clerk.

And this is where the story really resonates. It’s not just the cruel childhood as a child-worker, living in a room on his own, walking through London to work every day, budgeting for himself, with never mind no one to make sure he ate his greens, with no one even to make sure he ate. (To save money, his mother and his siblings were living in prison with his father.) It’s also the story of the person from the disadvantaged background who made good through his own efforts, who not merely survived a bad childhood, but turned it, triumphantly, into art, who made himself, through his own talents, the most respected, most courted man in Britain. (He refused honours, and turned down meetings with Queen Victoria.)

This is why Dickens is feted over Thackeray, perhaps even over Jane Austen (although hold onto your hats: her bicentenary is in 2017). We may admire Becky Sharp. We may want to be Lizzie Bennett or Mr Darcy. But it is Dickens himself, the man, not his characters, who speaks to us so powerfully today. We too live in a time that is, to parrot the man, both ‘the best of times’ and ‘the worst of times’. What most don’t remember is how those opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities continue: ‘it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’, not to mention ‘it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair’. And then, ‘we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.’

In these divided times – the super-rich and the jobless, with little certainty in between, the frothing religious fundamentalists and the screamingly secular, the climate-change believers and deniers – everything seems as sharply divided as Dickens saw it.

And unlike Thackeray, unlike Jane Austen, Dickens didn’t write about the graciously upper class, the respectably wealthy. Some of his characters were – there is Sir Leicester Dedlock, Bart, carefully given his title every time. But most of his characters were not. Some were indigent: I know of no character in literature more moving than Jo the crossing-sweeper in Bleak House, who has grown up on the streets, and ‘Don’t know that everybody has two names. Never heerd of sich a think.’ He has no family, no friends, has never been to school, and isn’t sure what the word ‘home’ means.

Even more of Dickens’ characters are what became known as ‘shabby-genteel’: people who are keeping up appearances, despite precarious finances, despite irrevocably sliding down the social scale, possibly losing a job, losing a family, losing everything, as the Dickens family once had so traumatically. In our own times, this speaks to us as we desperately work harder and harder, run faster and faster merely to stay in the same place. Primark, Walmart and Lidl may mean that we no longer look ‘shabby’; a more informal dress-code means no one really looks ‘genteel’, either, but in these decades of stagnating middle-class wages, in times when university education seems to be moving beyond the reach of many who had previously expected it, when social mobility seems to work in only one direction, the idea of lives lived precariously poised on the edge of financial despair is one we all recognize.

For, finally, it is the fear of destitution, and hope and idealization of the future, so uniquely mingled in this writer, whose books are more bizarre than any adaptation can do justice to, that makes him meaningful for our day as much as his day. Too many adaptations make his novels seem no different from Sherlock Holmes, all quaint hansom cabs, cobblestone streets and weirdly stilted prose used to indicate a generalized ‘past times’. What makes him powerful, though, is the present. In the BBC’s recent Great Expectations, there was much to disapprove of. (And I did, God knows.) But when the convict Magwitch, on the run, erupts from the marshes, grabbing the child Pip’s foot as he crosses a bridge, it encapsulates every child’s universal terror. It is just so that all children imagine a monster will emerge from under their beds, bursting into their nice safe world and bringing it crashing down. For Dickens is not safe, he is not ‘heritage’. He is fierce, and ferocious, and formidable.

No one has depicted the homeless with more sorrow and pity and terror than he, depicted them from both sides: from middle-class safety, looking outwards; and from their own point of view, looking at a world that seems to offer such richness, such happiness, to everyone except to you. And then, as an act of mediation, he moves us between the two worlds, so we understand both. When David Copperfield, like Charles Dickens once, a middle-class child-labourer in a factory, finally finds his aunt, returns to his family, ‘I thought of all the solitary places under the night sky where I had slept, and how I prayed that I never might be houseless any more, and never might forget the houseless.’

For much of the past century, it was fashionable to dismiss Dickens as ‘sentimental’. But in hard times, Dickens is once again ‘our’ writer precisely because he never forgets the houseless: never forgets the fear and shame of being houseless, before showing the security and haven in returning to family, to home, to being loved once more.

Explorers of the Nile By Tim Jeal

(publishing in the Wall Street Journal)

Explorers of the NileThe mystery of the source of the Nile is almost as old as recorded history—”It would be easier to find the source of the Nile,” Romans said of a futile task. The puzzle was not simply “where” but “how.” How could such a vast river flow 1,200 miles through the driest desert in the world without a single tributary to replenish it? There were many obstacles to discovering the source, from tropical diseases, through local conflicts exacerbated by the slave trade, to geographical barriers, including river cataracts and rainy seasons that turned land into swamps.

“Explorers of the Nile,” Tim Jeal’s engaging biographical study of the 19th-century adventurers who dared—clamored, even—to face these dangers does not stint on the brutal deaths met by many of them: Mungo Park probably drowned, Richard Lander was shot, the Dutchwoman Alexine Tinné was hacked to death, the French naval officer M. Maizan was mutilated, then beheaded. Yet reports of these grim ends seemed, if anything, a spur to other explorers, and Mr. Jeal examines the reasons, both spoken and unspoken, behind this lust for discovery.

Financial gain and political ends, both of which came to dominate later Western involvement in Africa, played little part: The search for the headwaters of the Nile began in 1856, a decade before the discovery of the diamond mines and gold fields of Africa. Instead, Mr. Jeal identifies personal reasons—a desire to escape routine, existential wanderlust, personal reinvention—and more idealistic ones: to benefit humanity, particularly by eradicating the slave trade; to bring trade to Africa; to extend the empire. There was also the simple human desire to be first.

In 1853, Richard Burton, an army officer, linguist, travel writer and self-promoter extraordinaire, boasted of being the first non-Muslim to visit Mecca, having made the hajj that year. (In fact, at least half a dozen had done so previously.) He was soon looking for new adventures. In 1841, the Ottoman governor of Egypt had sent boats as far as Gondokoro (now Ismailia, in Egypt) to map the reaches of the Upper Nile. Burton planned to search for the source in the lakes of east Africa, then head north to Gondokoro.

The companion he chose for the expedition could not have been more of a contrast to the dark, melodramatic, wordy Burton. John Hanning Speke, an army officer who had served in the Anglo-Sikh Wars of the 1840s, was fair, reserved and careful. He liked the Africans he met and mixed with; Burton despised them, finding company among Arab slavers. They fell out before the voyage even began.

Explorers of the NileNevertheless they set out in the summer of 1857 and reached Lake Tanganyika eight months later. Burton had failed to buy enough trading goods or to hire enough porters to carry their gear, which included tents, camp beds, chairs, food, cigars, books and a table—not to mention their scientific instruments, which were so fragile they needed to be swaddled. Because of the porterage problems, they had to abandon their boat along the way and could only look on from the shore. Nonetheless, Burton decided that Tanganyika was the source of the Nile. Having heard of a further lake to the north, Speke traveled on, leaving the desperately ill Burton behind, and found what he named Lake Victoria (Nyanza). He was unable to circumnavigate the water due to political instability, but he was certain that this was the Nile’s source, a contention that Burton hotly rejected.

A feud was born, with politicking and malice replacing geography and exploration. In the subsequent decades of claims and counter-claims, Burton suggested that Speke had had sunstroke, which “seemed permanently to affect his brain.” In fact, the latter had done all the mapping once their chronometers broke, calculating longitude by using lunar distances (no easy feat), while Burton was so ill that he had to be carried on a litter for most of the trip. In 1864, back in England, Speke died in a hunting accident—Mr. Jeal firmly repudiates Burton’s opportunistic suggestion of suicide—leaving the debate to Burton and his ready pen.

Speke was, as it turned out, correct about Nyanza, and Mr. Jeal is his ardent supporter. Nothing the wily Burton did was, in Mr. Jeal’s eyes, honest or aboveboard; Speke, by contrast, could do no wrong. Mr. Jeal makes an almost unanswerable case, but his stridency makes the reader wary.

Although “Explorers of the Nile” covers the rest of the century, Mr. Jeal’s heart is obviously with these early explorers, who are given disproportionate space. Of his love and admiration for David Livingstone, too, there can be no gainsaying. After Speke and Burton returned with conflicting accounts, Livingstone was sent in 1865 by the Royal Geographical Society to attempt to settle the matter. Livingstone, a missionary, also felt his journey had a higher purpose: to end the East African slave trade. If he could find the river’s source, he hoped, the possibility of new trade routes might create the political will to blockade the ports and destroy the evil trade. Only commerce, with ease of access to food and other goods, could improve health; monogamy and perhaps even Christianity might follow, he thought.

Mr. Jeal is similarly generous to the demons that drove Henry Morton Stanley and puts his search for, and hero-worship of, Livingstone in context, making his famous staged meeting, “resplendent in pith helmet and white flannels,” mounted on a stallion, with the Stars and Stripes flying, touching and admirable rather than vainglorious.

Mr. Jeal’s account of other explorers is more cursory, and the details can seem to flash by for those without previous knowledge of their stories. Samuel Baker and Florence, his Hungarian almost-wife, whom he had purchased in a slave auction on the Danube, met Burton and Speke when they reached Gondokoro. In a spirit of collegiality, Speke gave them his notes, and the Bakers continued on to map the lake Luta N’zigé, which they named after Prince Albert. In 1871, however, Baker claimed Gondokoro for the khedive of Egypt, and this gesture set off what became known as the “Scramble for Africa,” with the European powers vying for resource-rich lands.

It is Mr. Jeal’s contention that the earlier explorers opened the way for this political grab, and thus the sorrows of the 20th century—the war in Sudan, the division of Uganda—can all be traced back to these geographical quests. While this thesis has some validity, the biographical structure the author has chosen does not lend itself to what is ultimately a matter of nation-states rather than individual quests—history, not biography. Once the scramble began, European realpolitik predicated spheres of influence, and the explorers in the field became a mere sideshow, but in Mr. Jeal’s account they carry more weight than their roles can bear.

Because of Mr. Jeal’s prioritizing of people over events, his tale frequently presents the cart before the horse: We open with Livingstone’s journey to confirm Speke and Burton’s findings, only to dart back several decades. And the author, steeped in his subject, is perhaps more hardened to atrocities than his readers are likely to be: When Maizan is mutilated and beheaded, Mr. Jeal merely comments that this was an indication that the trip “was unlikely to be problem-free.” Indeed.

These matters are, however, more than counterbalanced by the author’s command of detail and astute reading of the evidence. There are also wonderful scenes, and asides, that conform to every stereotype one has of British explorers, such as Livingstone’s understatement when confronted by evidence that one tribe practiced cannibalism: “Not ostentatiously so,” he demurred. Or Burton’s first choice of companion for his Nile exploration, a man named Stocks, described by a friend as “an excellent chap, but a mad bitch.” When Baker met the king of Buganda, he appeared in full Highland dress: kilt, sporran and Glengarry bonnet all complete in the heart of Africa.

Alan Moorehead’s seminal account of the hunt for the river’s source, “The White Nile,” was published half a century ago, and, as Mr. Jeal notes, dozens of biographies, including nine of Burton, six of Stanley, three of the Bakers and four of Livingstone have since appeared. Despite the outpouring, Speke had been unfairly overlooked. Thanks to Mr. Jeal, though, he finally achieves his rightful place on the map.

The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars, by Paul Collins

History is filled with stories that enthralled newspaper readers for weeks or months at a time, that were the currency of thought and speech for everyone and then suddenly vanished. Excavating these episodes—excavating the right episode—can bring to life a period, creating a microcosm for exploring attitudes and ideas of times long gone.

In “The Murder of the Century,” Paul Collins focuses our attention on a New York murder that created a sensation in the summer of 1897. One afternoon a group of boys playing by the East 11th Street Pier found a flashy red-and-gold parcel in the water. They excitedly unwrapped it, but instead of finding something to eat or sell, they discovered a man’s torso. The next day another part of the body was found in an isolated rural area of the Bronx, near 170th Street along the Harlem River.

The inept, corrupt Manhattan police of the time wanted to write the discovery off as a medical-student prank. But the newspapers had put themselves on the trail, in particular Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Pulitzer, whose populist crusading had once put him in the vanguard of journalistic innovation, was fast being overtaken by the rich and rambunctious Hearst, their struggle propelling the era of yellow journalism ever faster toward sensationalism.

When the torso discovery was made, a reporter from the New York Herald overruled the police at the scene and went for the coroner. A rival at the World, for his part, hunted down retailers of the exotically patterned red-and-gold oilcloth, even as officials made sweeping statements based on nothing: “The murderer is a Sicilian or possibly a Spaniard or Cuban. Maybe a Spanish spy has been put out of the way by the Cubans.”

Pulitzer’s paper offered a staggering $500 reward to any reader “who could deduce a solution”; Hearst then offered $1,000. Hearst had been topping Pulitzer for some time, spending more money and willing to field more resources. Now he was beating him with technology, too, as the Journal reproduced a facsimile of the oilcloth—the first time color had been used in a news story.

Meanwhile, a journalist at the World had a hunch, based on his viewing of the torso at the morgue. The combination of strong muscles and soft, well-cared for hands sent him heading for the Murray Street Baths, where, sure enough, a masseur named William Guldensuppe had failed to show up for work. Despite this brilliant leap of intuition, Pulitzer was pipped to the post when one of Hearst’s reporters located the man who had sold the oilcloth. This breakthrough, in turn, took the reporter to the apartment of the buyer, one Augusta Nack, landlady and lover to Guldensuppe, and a local midwife. As Mr. Collins notes, she had a brass plate claiming that she was “licensed,” even though no licenses were necessary, or available, to midwives. She was, it emerged, a back-street abortionist.

Once at police headquarters on Mulberry Street, Mrs. Nack was giving nothing away, despite a quickly unraveling story. It turned out she had been involved in a love triangle with Guldensuppe and his fellow-lodger, Martin Thorn, whom Guldensuppe had recently treated to a beating. Everything now seemed set for a quick, if thrilling, trial, with only one possible result.

Indeed, neither the perpetrators nor the result are in doubt from the early pages of “The Murder of the Century.” It is therefore greatly to Mr. Collins’s credit that he keeps the narrative interesting, moving from investigation, to trial, to sentencing and after. The pace is admirable—he ensures that the reader is up to speed on details of current court procedure, or the politics of fin-de-siècle New York, yet he never becomes bogged down in unnecessary side-issues. His exploration of the newspaper world, at the very moment when tabloid values were being born, is revealing but also enormously entertaining.

One wishes, therefore, that the writing itself rose above the pedestrian. The book too frequently reads as though Mr. Collins was writing hurriedly. Repetitions and verbal tics abound. Baseboards were burned in “a fit of evidence-room housecleaning”; case files were destroyed “in a fit of housekeeping.” The police station “bristles” with wires on its roof, just as a newsroom is said to be “bristling,” this time with telegraphs and typewriters. Too many sentences run on without focus: “Mulberry Street was a bewildering place, the nerve center for over 100,000 arrests a year and uniformed officers issuing curt commands from the telegraph offices in the basement all the way up to the Lost Children Department on the top floors.”

As disruptive are words and phrases that simply do not mean what the author intends them to mean. One character has “blond hair pompaded high.” (Pomaded? In a pompadour?) Another “squandered a series of jobs”—one can squander the money that jobs bring, or the opportunities they offer; one cannot squander jobs. Sometimes the imprecision brings about a surreal humor: The impresario Ziegfeld, Mr. Collins reports, went to see Thorn accompanied by his “personal mistress.” (An impersonal mistress doesn’t really bear thinking about.)

Given the many strengths of “The Murder of the Century,” it might seem unkind to belabor these points. But it is because of the strengths that weaknesses are worth mentioning. Mr. Collins has a clear eye, a good sense of telling detail, and a fine narrative ability. If only he, and possibly his editor, had spent more time on the nuts and bolts of creating a book, “The Murder of the Century” would have been of more than ephemeral value.