Book Reviews

Skull in the Ashes

(University of Iowa Press, $19.95)


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In the early morning hours of February 3, 1897, Frank Novak’s dry goods store—in the small Iowa town of Walford—went up in flames.

The townspeople assumed the charred remains found the next day were Novak’s, but evidence suggests otherwise. Peter Kaufman’s Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America is a lucid and meticulously researched account of this remarkable case. The mystery reads like a lively adventure yarn, as detective J.J. “Red” Perrin tracks the fugitive Novak for thousands of miles up through the wildest reaches of Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

While the Novak case made for lurid headlines, it also heralded the early use of photography, forensics and other investigative techniques that have quickly become the standard procedure in crime investigation today. Skull in the Ashes is a gripping, absorbing read.

—Patrick Millikan, editor of Phoenix Noir

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