Thomas Keneally introduces the subject of his latest book as ‘the notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles’. He was notorious in his own time, no doubt, but is certainly no household name today. When I asked a couple of American academics about this infamous figure in their nation’s past, they said they had never heard of him. After I had also glanced at several American histories without finding any reference to the man, I assumed that Thomas Keneally, well known as the author of Schindler’s Ark and The Playmaker, had once again exercised his talent for discovering a striking story in relatively unexplored territory. So it proved. This time he has hit upon a ripe character from that rough and often disreputable period when the modern USA was struggling to be born. A promising subject, then.