Donna Merwick,
Death of a Notary
(Cornell University, 1999)

Not many mysteries give up their ending in the introduction, but a suicide would seem to do just that. A person kills himself; victim and perpetrator are established. But the motive for suicide can be the most baffling of all crimes, and that is the mystery around the Death of a Notary. With the discriminating eye of a forensic specialist, Donna Merwick sets out the crime, the characters and ties of colonial New York.

Merwick builds her case based only on physical and witness testimony. The case is very cold, and the only witnesses now are silent ink, mostly in unfeeling prose. Within her spare frame of reference, Merwick provides a surprisingly solid and developed portrait of Dutch and English New York, and the uncomfortable transfer between them. Translating from the pages of deeds and lawsuits, she constructs brickyards, political alliances, social networks and economic strata. In all of this, her chief subject, Adrien Janse van Ilpendam, leads the increasingly desperate life of a Dutch notary. Merwick moves with Janse from a sense of dull normalcy to a sustained desperation, all with only the most accurate, factual accounts of the minutiae of daily life for the Dutch settlers.

This history is not in the least speculative; where solid documentation does not provide a window into the past, Merwick lets her tale fall into silence. And Janse never provides anything to personalize himself or make himself stand out from the several other extremely Dutch characters that enter the story. The severe, almost legal feel of the language and the lack of a truly sympathetic lead sometimes make the story a dry read. It also sometimes works to bring immediacy to the unfolding tale of Adrien Janse and his contemporaries, as though the story was being told in newspaper blurbs that left no room for elaboration. And like a folktale, the lack of insight into individual motives leaves readers free to see their own feelings behind individual actions.

In the end, Janse is strangely silent for a man of letters. His lack of personal revelation and Merwick's insistence on honest research means that Death of a Notary offers no neat answers. All it offers is a visit to New York during some of its more unsettled years and a brief acquaintance with a man of no grand importance. But Janse and record keepers like him are often the ones who make history. At least, they document and remember it for the future, often with less distortion than the official storytellers. And they are usually forgotten. Merwick's careful, precise account of his life and world makes Death of a Notary not just solid microhistory, but a continuation of work done by a forgotten settler caught between the clash of two empires.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 13 September 2003

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