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The Right Question

Detective stories have an evergreen popularity that precedes any star power of their protagonists or the suspenseful twists and turns of an ingenious plot. Much of the attraction lies in the illusion that we are witnessing the cleverness of a clearheaded character in the act of figuring out a puzzle, answering a knotty question, solving a crime. One essential step in the work of any good detective—whether real-life or fictional—is asking the right questions.

The ability to frame a question that leads to a meaningful answer is also a trait of good historians.

In a suburban New England town three decades ago, a local police detective finally solved a famous series of brutal killings. A serial killer had murdered eight people in the same area by the same methods yet had stymied whole teams of state police, FBI agents and other law enforcement types. The detective found the killer by asking one simple question no other investigator had thought to ask: Is there any person who was known to all the victims—a friend, a neighbor, a relative, a coworker? He reexamined all the files, reinterviewed witnesses, family members and acquaintances, and systematically eliminated everyone not known to all eight victims. When he was done, he was left with one suspect—a local preacher. Sure enough, he was the killer.

Historical investigations, while rarely so dramatic, are similarly shaped by questions the historian seeks to answer. They may be circumstantial questions, seeking where it happened, when it happened and who was involved, without reaching the more interpretive questions of how and why. And in many instances—say, an ancient battle or an obscure campaign—the primary sources may yield only fragments of familiar information with no obvious fresh insights.

But the right question can shape a line of inquiry that sheds new light on an old subject: Where did George Washington’s Continentals get their cannons? How accurate could a mounted archer possibly be, especially when shooting backward from a galloping horse? Where did the Union Army get all those freight wagons? How long could sword-wielding infantrymen actually fight before dropping from exhaustion? Why did Julius Caesar write those Commentaries? What kind of boats did Alexander use?

Answers to such commonsense questions have the potential to unravel many a historical mystery.