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“Duel With the Devil”: Murder in Old New York

Crime and punishment: Dostoyevsky was far from the only writer to recognize how much a society reveals about itself in the way it handles both. For novelists, a detective can serve as a roving eye, licensed to peer into the secrets of every social stratum, while a trial, with its pitched adversaries and high stakes, becomes a dramatic way to decide not only what happened but who, if anyone, is to blame.

That's how Paul Collins uses the famous real-life murder mystery at the center of "Duel With the Devil." This sensational crime took place in Manhattan in December, 1799, on the very brink of a new century (or not quite, if you're the sort of pedant who insists that the millennium didn't really turn until New Year's 1801 -- and yes, those people were around back then, too!). The body of a young Quaker woman, Elma Sands, was found at the bottom of a well in Lispenard Meadows, a swath of marshy, undeveloped land that separated New York City proper from Greenwich Village, approximately where the neighborhood of Soho stands today. The guy almost everyone liked for the killer was Levi Weeks, a carpenter who lived in the same boarding house as Sands, an establishment run by Sands' cousin, Catharine Ring, and her husband, Elias.

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