The best popular history books pick an event or person and use that to illuminate a whole place or period. Ghost Ship:The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks takes the famous tale of the Mary Celeste and shows us a window into the end of the age of sail and the beginnings of "yellow journalism" before that term even existed.
Everybody knows the basics of the story. The cargo brig Mary Celeste was found totally abandoned, but still very seaworthy, about 300 miles off the coast of Portugal. Theories of all sorts have been expounded, ranging from giant squid assaults to mutiny to pirates to alien abductions to insurance fraud to bad weather and even more. Because no trace of the crew was ever found the mystery has given many a fertile imagination a starting point. Even Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a short story about the Mary Celeste, years before he struck gold with Sherlock Holmes.
Hicks's take on the tragedy is very human, and walks us through the whole story of the Mary Celeste, from her construction on a sand bar in Nova Scotia to her eventual death on a reef near Haiti. He talks about the ship, the time, and the people who's lives were touched by the Ghost Ship. Hicks's true triumph is that the reader gets a very real sense of the missing Captain Briggs and his family, and sees more than just a mystery, but an unexplained tragedy that cost the lives of ten people.