Panama Fever: The Epic Story of the Building of the Panama Canal (Vintage) - Matthew Parker Sometimes, when reading non-fiction, there will be on person that sort of jumps out. Not necessarily someone who was terribly important to the events, but just because they'll have a funny name, or happen to be the one that kept the most extensive diary and get quoted a lot, or have participated in some stupid but illustrative anecdote or something, and then going forward I kind of keep an eye out for them. In this instance, the person is one Claude Mallet, British acting-consul to Panama and as such possessor of many duties and writer of many letters. About a third of the way through I had to stop and google him. Reassured that he died somewhere in England aged 81 having finally been made actual consul, I could now continue reading. He was acting consul, you see, because the actual consuls dropping dead from malaria, yellow fever or nervous breakdowns.

Most of the effort of building the canal appears to have been an utter disaster of absolutely epic - the most epicest in history ever, in fact - proportions, and Parker tells it all with relish. (The final few chapters, when the thing actually gets built go by very quickly. They're just nowhere near as fun, I guess.)

Theres forty years worth of scandals, revolutions, trials, coup d'etats, lies, breakdowns and betrayals of the political and economic wrangling about the canal, which are pretty awesome. Then theres the engineering story itself, which is fascinating and includes what sounds like some of the weirdest machines ever built. You can see technology leaping ahead desperately, trying to do things it really just can't yet and creating total steampunk madness.

Where the book really shines though is in giving the bulk of the narrative over to the lives of the people who built the canal. Racism, labour, health, living standards, food, entertainment, crime, death, etc. It's great - exactly the kind of stuff I always wish for and never seem to get enough of. He doesn't neglect the 'great men' and the political narrative, but really tries to give a sense of how life was lived in this kind of mad, artificial place that seems to have been such a product of that age.