In reading The Ghost Map, I became a detective

by Mr. Sheehy

Before we had multiple children, I used to sleep in a bit every Saturday. It made for a lovely morning, perhaps even more lovely that we were renting apartments at the time so I was not burying my head in the pillow to hide from the drywall I should have been hanging in the basement. A particular bit of luck on these mornings was when I awoke right around 8:15. At that fortunate time I’d roll over and click on the radio just before the Car Talk Puzzler.

Car Talk’s hosts are funny guys, as anyone who enjoys the show will point out. Yet Tom and Ray’s humor is only one pillar of the show; the other is the detective story. These comical detectives are looking to diagnose troubles related to cars, and with the Puzzler they explicitly invite the listener to become detectives too. I cannot resist the involvement, though I have never sent in an answer. I want to figure out why, for example, Ray was worried about spilling a bowl of soup in his car early in the day but later was not worried at all. Sometimes, like with that soup Puzzler, I deduce the answer. More often I simply admire it and admit that when it comes to my own detective work, I am more of an Inspector Gadget than a Sherlock Holmes.

I thought of this detective work, this muscle flexing of deductive reasoning, as I read Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map. In the book, Victorian England attempts to solve a bacterial mystery: cholera. In particular, Johnson traces the 1854 cholera outbreak that occurred in Soho and the attempt of two men to determine and prove its cause. I fell into the story headlong, grateful for the background Johnson’s research lent to my favorite Dickens’ novels, and intrigued by the world before bacteria was known and before public sanitation had become . . . sanitized (In London, the original water closets and other waste plumbing dumped their contents back into one of the main water sources, the Thames).

At least four times while reading the book I cornered people like the Ancient Mariner and excitedly informed them all about the nature of cholera: how it occurs only in places where people are somehow eating their own fecal matter, how it attacks so fast in some cases that a person can go from perfectly healthy to dead in less than two days, and how its cure is basically lots of Gatorade (water and electrolytes). In our hindsight vision the attempts to cure it were morbidly comical: bleeding, castor oil, an opium mixture equivalent to heroin, and air freshener were a few choice methods.

The air freshener hints at the main antagonist in Johnson’s book: a theory called miasma, which held that diseases were transmitted through foul air. The miasma theory was so widely accepted that Dickens, among others, was convinced of it. Dr. John Snow, a diligent and gifted doctor who is the focus of much of the book, disagrees with the theory, but he has a difficult task convincing his fellow citizens and doctors that he is right.

With Snow’s task as the driving conflict, I read The Ghost Map like a detective story, knowing what the truth was but wondering what pieces of the puzzle Snow could discover to construct an undeniable case. The Reverend Henry Whitehead plays a significant role in the detective work as well, and it was Snow, Whitehead, and the pictures of 19th Century London that drove me through this book.

That said, I am convinced Johnson could have constructed the book better, to hold the suspense of the detective story longer. The way it is, my interest wanes before he fully explains the map that gives the book its title. After reading David McCullough so recently and experiencing his skill at holding me in a narrative, I may currently hold too high a standard for nonfiction books in this area. Yet it is a standard I hold, and a strong editor might have helped Johnson build more anticipation leading into Snow’s innovative map of Soho.

I might have been more willing to let this go if it were not for the somewhat weird epilogue at the end. Johnson’s morbid reflections on how cities could be destroyed, either by terrorist attack or a new disease, left me wondering why I continued reading. He seemed almost nervous that readers would not find the history on the cholera outbreak relevant, and thus he went out of his way to spell out how it could connect. Maybe this section of the book thrilled another reader, but not me. I couldn’t get through it fast enough.

Still, I enjoyed the first three quarters of the book and choose to look past these faults in giving it my recommendation. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of Victorian England, the adoption of medical ideas, or the development of modern cities. When I opened it I began to think along side John Snow and Henry Whitehead, becoming myself a detective in Victorian London. In a sense,  I vicariously solved the Puzzler The Ghost Map presents, and solving a Puzzler is always a worthwhile pursuit.

Thanks for reading.