American Experience
Murder at Harvard: History and Fiction

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How did you begin your research into the Parkman murder?

The history of Boston means the Parkman family, one way or another. I was interested in the greatest 19th-century Boston historian, Francis Parkman, who thought he was going blind, and he himself, as he was writing, was a mysterious and strange and compelling figure. One face of Boston history is of the ideal 19th century scholar-writer: severe, forbidding, with a great, tight grip on the truth. And, because of Francis Parkman's own strangeness, I felt there was another slightly more chilling and odd story to tell that attracted me.

And when I was writing about Francis Parkman, I fell over the story of his uncle George, much like someone tripping over a recumbent body. George was the uncle who'd been murdered in peculiar circumstances. Circumstances that concerned Harvard University, a place I'd taught at for years without knowing this. And sometimes projects choose you -- all these bits and pieces: one's writing life, one's life as an historian, a sense of the presence of the dead creeping through, or floating up, into one's front mind in the library. It really was something that I felt an extraordinary kind of compulsion, a pull, towards. And I didn't definitely decide to write it until I made contact with the archives. It was still something I wasn't sure about. I was actually engaged in starting to write a different book at the time. And as I pulled myself into it, it was more like being glued to my chair, glued to the sources. The story came alive inside my head, and on the archive table, and I went ahead with it in that way.

It seemed above all, to be a story of mystery, the mystery of the truth about the past, how people came to be victims, murderers, but I guess I remember a line from an English historian, Collingwood, who was a theorist of history, had the most highfalutin ideas about history, who once said historians are like bad amateur detectives. They have the evidence. They bungle and fumble their way around, and grope at the truth. They try to reconstruct an event as a detective tries to reconstruct an event. I like mystery stories and all those things pulled me towards it.