Peter Kaufman has written a wonderful yarn about a murder and a manhunt that happened more than a hundred years ago in Iowa and Alaska.
“Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America” is a suspenseful, colorful tale — history told as it should be, evenhanded and accurate, with memorable dialogue and fully realized, larger-than-life characters.
The book, in addition to being admirable history, is a mystery and an adventure.
The section of the book about the manhunt is the most dramatic. It features a tough, red-haired, dogged detective named Red Perrin, who always gets his man. But his pursuit of the Iowa murder suspect will take everything he has.
He’s chasing Frank Novak of Walford — or , rather, a man he thinks is Novak — up the Yukon River in a hand-made boat as the gold rush starts. The Yukon’s dangerous rapids claim many a prospector’s life. Conditions are harsh and primitive, and giant mosquitoes threaten travelers’ sanity.
The manhunt is filled with cliff-hanging decisions, with an ironic twist at the end.
Iowans, in particular, will relish the local references in the book — the descriptions of Walford; the dark and stuffy Benton County Courthouse (since replaced) in Vinton; and of the big city of Cedar Rapids, where Novak liked to gamble.
The Gazette’s city editor, an “amateur sleuth” named W.I. Endicott, brings in a forensics expert for the trial and constantly dreams up ways to keep the sensational story on his newspaper’s front page.
Eastern Iowans also will find well-known names in the epilogue, including that of a famed Cedar Rapids Washington High School football coach.
Kaufman rewards his readers with little historical gems throughout his book, describing, for example, the metal ID tags that men wore on their suspenders in the 1890s. The tags carry a number on a registry. If you should die, the ID tag would identify your body.
You learn, too, how attorneys advertised their services in the 1890s, with Novak’s brash defense lawyer describing himself as “always in the stirrups … Quick as a hippopotamus. And gentle as a sunstroke.” The pictures in the book are a treat, too.
One of the gifts Kaufman provides his readers is the book’s cover. A Canadian surveyor took a picture of Novak and Perrin in 1897 and played a parlor game for years afterward, inviting guests to guess which man is the detective, which one the murderer. A lot of guests got it wrong.
You can play that game, too. It’s a bonus — though you won’t need one — to reading The book is a well-written, meticulously researched story from our past, one we wouldn’t know about if an Ohio man hadn’t undertaken a dogged pursuit of his own.