By Randolph Roth
Belknap/Harvard Univ. 655 pp. $45
This book's stark title contrasts with its bulk and its reliance on multitudes of statistics. Randolph Roth, a history professor at Ohio State, has studied murder from colonial times to the present. He traces the great rise in American murder rates to the middle decades of the 19th century, when "the least homicidal places in the Western world suddenly became the most homicidal. By the end of the Civil War, homicide rates among unrelated adults were substantially higher in the North than in Canada or western Europe, and higher still by one or two orders of magnitude in the South and Southwest." What set the United States apart from less violent countries, Roth suggests, was a series of upheavals that hit the nation at the time: "the crises over slavery and immigration, the decline in self-employment, and the rise of industrialized cities. . . . Disillusioned by the course the nation was taking, people felt increasingly alienated from both their government and their neighbors. They were losing the sense that they were participating in a great adventure with their fellow Americans. Instead, they were competing in a cutthroat economy and a combative electoral system against millions of strangers whose interests and values were antithetical to their own."