The Infernal Machine

The Infernal Machine by Steven Johnson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Infernal Machine:

This book is explosive! (I’m so sorry, I’ll see myself out.)

Quick synopsis:

A story about dynamite, anarchists, and the evolution of policing in New York City.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Owen Eagen was the only (what we would now call) bomb disposal personnel working with the NYPD for years and he defused over 7,000 bombs.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

In 1845, murder rates in NYC were five times higher than they are today.

My Take on The Infernal Machine:

This book is anarchy. No wait, this book is an octopus. Actually, it’s both.

The Infernal Machine by Steven Johnson accomplishes something no other book before it has done. That is to describe the ideology of anarchy in a way that makes sense to me. As for the “octopus” part, Johnson weaves so many story lines together that it will make your head spin. Off the top of my head, he explains the aforementioned anarchist movement, the evolution of the U.S. detective, J. Edgar Hoover, dynamite, and the beginnings of a police state. This book is part history, true crime, and even thriller. How can Johnson balance all these topics without it feeling like a disjointed mess? I don’t know, but he did it.

The major through-line of the story are the anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. I certainly wouldn’t call them the heroes of the story as they are, at best, hypocrites and, at worst, psychopaths. It depends how comfortable you are with blowing people up. Regardless, their characters are not the point. Their belief system, anarchy, is. Johnson masterfully paints a picture of a movement that has some interesting ideas even if they are never fully understood, implemented, or even agreed upon by its adherents. Goldman and Berkman lay at the center of all the tentacles of the octopus even when they are not actively taking part. It makes for a story which covers a lot of ground while being extremely compact and engaging on every page.

In short, this will be on a lot of people’s “best of 2024” lists (including mine!).

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Crown Publishing.)


Everyone will enjoy this. You need to read it. Buy it here!

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