Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice

March 21, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

The Great Pretenders: The True Stories behind Famous Historical Mysteries, by Jan Bondeson. Norton. 326 pages. $25.95.

Anyone who has run across Bondeson's Buried Alive, The Two-Headed Boy and Other Medical Marvels or others of his work -- in whole or in part -- will grab for this newest examination of immortal mysteries.

A professor at the University of Wales College of Medicine and a researcher of immense energy and apparently unquenchable curiosity, Bondeson here delves into a substantial number of the most enduring true-life mysteries of European history. One involved the Duke of Portland at and around the turn of the 19th-20th centuries -- a nobleman devoted to solitude, and purported also to a second, parallel life as a London shopkeeper, complete with a family. There is Prince Louis Charles, son of King Louis XVI of France, imprisoned by revolutionaries in the Temple Tower in Paris -- who may have been rescued, escaped or died. The "Lost Dauphin" story has fascinated historians and armchair detectives for more than two centuries. Bondeson does the story -- and his others -- proud. One of those lovely books you can wander through at moments that call for distraction.

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