Too clever by half

<strong>Cunning</strong>

Don Herzog <em>Princeton University Press, 192pp, £15.95</em>

ISBN 0691

Cunning, Don Herzog's cultural history of the eponymous virtue-vice, is the most seductive book I've seen this year. It has Hieronymus Bosch on the cover, Odysseus and Machiavelli in the foreword, 16th-century woodcuts of witches being burnt at the stake and footnotes citing everyone from Eusebius to Wittgenstein. Even the author's Mafiosic/ Bellovian name is impeccably, lit-culturally chic.

But Herzog, "Edson R Sunderland Professor of Law at the University of Michigan", turns out to be a dodgy date, embodying all the worst excesses of the trendy Prada-wearing don. Cunning is unbearably arch: "Just don't expect me to tell you what I'm doing at any moment," Herzog admonishes us, adding coyly: "And don't trust me if I do." He then observes that, unlike the bovine common reader, he positions himself "as a mischievous equal of the author", whatever he is reading. It's tempting to imagine him applying this tactic to, say, Jordan's autobiography, but he modestly restricts himself to the works of Homer, Dostoevsky and Hobbes.

As an approach to history and ethics, self-congratulation has its drawbacks: it's hard to shake the suspicion that the cunning Herzog finds most bewitching is his own.

This article first appeared in the 07 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Blood on his hands