Most of us have an exciting tale, passed down through the generations, that shapes our family's view of itself. We might live boring, humdrum lives, but a bit of excitement is added by the "fact" that one of our ancestors was a highwayman, or a high-class courtesan, or made some other mark, even a disreputable mark, on history.
James Landale's family has a more solidly based claim to such fame than most, for his ancestor, an otherwise apparently dull Scottish businessman, fought the last known fatal duel in the nation's history. But all the family history could tell him about the drama came from one single, small newspaper cutting, a summary that raised more questions than it answered.
And so, intermittently over ten years, Landale set out to uncover the real story, much helped by the manuscript of the evidence of the resulting trial, which was fortuitously collected by one of the lawyers involved. He also found the very pistols used in the duel, in a corner of the small museum in Kirkcaldy.
But Landale sought more than just the individual tale, fascinating as it was. He also wondered why this was the last such clash. So as he follows the days leading up to the meeting of the 40-year-old David Landale, a sober linen trader and merchant, and George Morgan, the hot-head former army officer turned banker, in a muddy, misty field near the North Sea in 1826, he looks back over the history of the duel.
That takes him back to the medieval tales of trial by ordeal - including the wonderful account of the "duelling" greyhound, which avenged his murdered master. He wanders around the continent, tracing the social differences that led it to stick to cold steel, while British increasingly - and eventually almost exclusively - used pistols.
On the Continent, duelling remained the preserve of the aristocratic class, which still formed the military upper class. So it was that in 1794, when a young French officer, Captain Dupont, was ordered by his general to tell a fellow captain that he was not welcome at a ball, the two came to fight a duel with naked steel. The second man, Fournier, was seriously wounded by a sword thrust, and immediately demanded a rematch. So it came, over 19 years, that they fought regular duels - signing a contract that they would fight any time they came within 100 miles of each other. (Their story was made into a movie by Ridley Scott, called, logically enough, The Duellists.)
Only two under-employed aristocrats, one feels, could dream up and persistently follow through such a caper. In Britain, however, with its growing empire and spreading commercial wealth, the duel spread widely through society, well into the middle classes. Most of these combatants had never been trained with the sword - to try to wield one would be to provoke ridicule, and a quick but nasty death should your opponent be better prepared. This social change also led, as Landale outlines, to a whole industry in printed guides for duelling, for those not brought up with the requisite etiquette. And complex it was indeed, as Landale and Morgan, and their reluctant seconds, demonstrated.