Great history books generally fall into one of two categories. The first category is a streamlined and essentialized rocket trip straight through a subject to the heart of the matter. The second category branches out from the subject at hand to touch on the context, consider the background, describe the setting, and explain the implications thus providing the fullest possible understanding of the subject matter. Usually history books of this second kind are terribly boring – the author droning and rambling on and on, lacking the adult supervision of a competent editor. Every once in a while however, a book of this second kind nevertheless achieves greatness through colorful presentation of a rich background texture of events in support of a gripping tale. Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas is such a book.
Frank Steunenberg was the fourth Governor of Idaho, serving from 1897 to 1901. On December 30, 1905, a bomb planted in his garden gate detonated. Steunenberg died of his wounds soon thereafter. Authorities quickly captured the assassin, Harry Orchard. In those pre-FBI days, criminal investigation across state lines was typically conducted by private investigators. The leading firm was the Pinkertons, who made a business of providing private security for railroads, mines, and other industrial concerns. Idaho engaged their top man, James McParland, to lead the investigation.