Unsolved Mysteries of History, by Paul Aron
Reviewed by Martin Kich
[This review was originally published in The Mystery Review. ]
I am an avid viewer of documentary television, but I am not a great fan of programs such as the In Search of series hosted by Leonard Nimoy. I am put off by those "pseudo-documentaries" in which the emphasis is on reiterating the questions in increasingly portentous tones while the possible answers are addressed superficially and inconclusively. Although the title of Aronís book gave me some misgivings, it is considerably more substantive and thought-provoking than I may have expected. He has combined a scholarly interest in his many subjects with a conciseness and directness of style that will appeal to a more general but educated reader.
Aron treats twenty-five historical mysteries. They are divided rather neatly by period: the first through the fifth are from classical antiquity; the eleventh through fifteenth, from medieval times; the sixteenth through eighteenth from the Renaissance period; the nineteenth, from the Neoclassical period; the twentieth through twenty-second, from the early twentieth century; the twenty-third and twenty-fourth, from the Nazi era; and the twenty-fifth, from very recent headlines. Even the sixth through tenth mysteries, which are less obviously related by history or geography, are similarly located in exotic locales. Aron has obviously tried to cover a very wide range of subjects without completely sacrificing the overall coherence of the book.
Although any book of this sort would inevitably invite arguments about the selection of subjects, Aronís broadly inclusive approach would seem to provoke them. I wonder at the inclusion of the mystery of whether Jesus actually died on the cross. In this case, the actual issue is not even clearly defined, for Aron seems to shift the focus to the question of whether Jesus actually rose from the dead and then to the question of how these "events" were recorded and understood by his disciples and subsequent believers. Any of these questions seem to me to be more matters of religious faith than topics for historical inquiry.
Furthermore, a few of the subjects seem to lack the stature of the othersĖin particular, the medieval mystery involving the identification of Martin Guerre. And in the case of the contemporary mystery concerning Gorbachevís possible involvement in the so-called August Coup that led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the result seems to have been much more significant than the event itself or the issue of Gorbachevís involvement.
Other subjects are just rather shopworn: Was there really a Trojan War? Who was King Arthur? Did Richard III kill the princes in the Tower? Who wrote Shakespeareís plays? And did any of the Romanovs survive?
Still, in a number of instances, Aron has provided very cogent and enlightening overviews of less familiar or more subtle issues. I found myself completely absorbed in the discussions of why the pyramids were constructed, of who actually invented printing, of what Columbus actually expected to find by sailing West from Spain, and of why Freud abandoned his seduction theory. Given that this is the sort of book that many readers are likely to dip into, rather than to read from cover to cover, there is more than enough here to sustain interest and to stimulate conversation.