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Conspiracy History - review

There are two aspects of this book that might raise a suspicious eyebrow in a potential reader. One is the cover, which is a trifle garish and reminiscent of those local history books you get on holiday in Devon. The other is the idea that, as a book about conspiracy theories, it is going to be all about topics like the Moon landings being faked and Princess Diana being murdered at the behest of the British royal family.

I can immediately allay those fears. This slim book is a solidly written collection of historical stories, many dating back several hundred years or more. The lunatic fringe conspiracy theories are mentioned in the introduction, where Andrew May does exhibit possibly excessive open-mindedness by saying that David Icke's theory that the world is run by shape changing lizards is 'probably too far fetched to be true'. But in his historical explorations, which range from ancient Egypt, through a whole raft of British and European kings and queens, to twentieth century events, he is soberly careful to distinguish what probably was indeed a conspiracy from wild speculation.

It's arguable that some of the stories - for instance the establishment of the rump parliament or the massacre of St Brice's day are more quirky historical facts than true conspiracies, but that doesn't stop them being interesting if, like me, your grasp of history is largely confined to the narrow topics covered in school. In writing style, May sometimes veers dangerously close to 1066 and All That with phrases like 'he couldn't stand to see other people enjoying themselves, and he believed the end-times were imminent' - but this isn't a significant problem.

Overall I felt I'd learned a lot of interesting oddities in history, many of them with a conspiracy flavour. Some I would have liked to delve into in greater detail. For instance, in the suspicious death of Napoleon, possibly by arsenic poisoning, could green wallpaper in the damp house he lived in have had a role?

Many modern conspiracy theories fail because they involve a situation where incompetence is a far more likely cause than conspiracy, especially in a world where far more information is available for far more people to check, making it difficult to cover up secret goings on. In the historical periods May describes, there was far more opportunity for a small number of powerful people to succeed with a conspiracy and get away with it. And some of the stories he tells are excellent examples.

So get over the book's cover and your wariness of conspiracy nuts - this is an excellent smorgasbord of strange historical delights.

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