Books: ‘The Judges of the Secret Court’

June 16, 2011

For years I’ve been hearing about David Stacton (1923-1968). Dead at the age of 44, the author of historical novels set in ancient Egypt, Napoleonic Europe, Japan and pre-Columbian America, Stacton was chosen in 1963 by Time magazine as one of the finest young novelists in America. Others among the anointed few included John Updike, Joseph Heller, Ralph Ellison and Philip Roth.

These days Stacton’s name ­frequently appears near the top   of another list — that of 20th- century American writers deserving rediscovery. Happily, New York Review Books has taken the hint and issued a handsome paperback edition of one of Stacton’s finest works, “The Judges of the Secret Court” (1961). You’ll recognize the book by its striking cover — the close-up of a gun barrel, pointed directly at the reader.

Far more than just “a novel about John Wilkes Booth,” “The Judges of the Secret Court” — haunting title — depicts the complex aftershock of the Lincoln assassination on a surprisingly large circle of people, including the various conspirators, the famous Booth family of actors and the Washington politicos who seize on the death of the president for their own purposes. Every one of these characters, even if he or she only appears for a paragraph or two, is conveyed with vivid, blazing life. For instance, Stacton sums up the care-worn Lincoln: “He was wistfully a little tired of doing his best to be the world’s father, when what he wanted, sometimes, was someone to bring him a shawl when he was cold.”

What most surprises about this “historical” novel is its urbane, mildly epigrammatic style. Stacton is never florid or old-fashioned. He writes with lean economy and speed, with what John Crowley in his superb introduction calls a “gripping cold attentiveness.” Even though most readers will know the general outlines of the events, Stacton keeps up the dramatic tension throughout: Will Booth manage to get away? Will the innocent, as well as the guilty, be hanged by a vengeful government?

Wilkes himself is depicted as a self-centered, spoiled mama’s boy, half dandy, half rake, an actor who looks upon his life as one constant performance. He has a theatrical hunger for fame, and no ethics, only manners. On the afternoon before the assassination, Booth briefly calls to mind his fiancee, Bessie Hale, the daughter of an ex-senator:

“Thinking of her, he made that little gesture, his favourite, which was habitual with him, a quick tugging at the handkerchief in his breast pocket, with head modestly downcast, like that of a white cockatoo preening itself. It went so perfectly with the single syllable ‘m’dear,’ which only actors seem able to pronounce. That syllable came out so naturally after some young miss had played the piano or paid a compliment: ‘M’dear, you have lovely shoulders: you play so well.’ ‘M’dear, you flatter me.’ He had been photographed making that gesture. It was his favourite photograph.”

Particularly proud of his crisp tailoring, this jumped-up Southern gentleman regularly studies the shiny ­leather of his boots, twirls the rowel of his spur. This vanity — a kind of hubris — neatly enough leads to his downfall: When the escaping Booth leaps to the stage from the presidential box, a spur catches in an overhanging flag, such that he lands awkwardly and breaks his leg.

While most novelists might focus on the events leading up to the assassination, Stacton begins on the day itself and moves Booth and Lincoln to their destiny with crisp, clocklike efficiency. As the actor enters Ford’s Theatre, he asks a local drunk to hold his horse, then assumes the noble air that his role demands:

“It had impressed him, walking down the stage box corridor, that the walk to the scaffold is much the same as the criminal’s march to the crime. It has the same inevitable pace. Yet the corridor was empty and he was no criminal. He was the hero, girding himself for an heroic act. He could only deplore that the setting was so shoddy. Still, he could see the damnable villain’s back.

“Opening the door, he stepped inside, took out his deringer, cocked it, and shot the President. The time was 10:15.”

End of Chapter Five.

After the quick buildup to the murder, Stacton immediately slows the pace. He details the shock of the audience and the cast of “Our American Cousin”; zeroes in on the doctors and hangers-on around the dying Lincoln; and finally reveals the impact of the assassination on the world. Newspapers typically given to denouncing the president tear up their pages to run “laudations and long descriptions of the nation’s grief.”

At this point we meet the true villain of the novel, not the self-deluding popinjay Booth, but the cruel and power-hungry secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton. While Lincoln is pronounced “the last of the old men,” Stanton is distinctly “one of the new men,” who “want nothing for themselves but the prerogatives of their office.” The secretary of war is, in fact, that familiar 20th- century type, a proto-Stalin:

“He proposed to arrest everyone in sight. It was his usual method, for he had come to believe that all the world was guilty of something. It was merely necessary to discover of what, and that could be proven better in the Old Capitol Prison than in court.”

In the last quarter of the novel, Stacton reveals Stanton’s self-aggrandizing policy in action as the supposed conspirators face a farcical monkey trial. None of the Washington insiders, including Vice President Andrew Johnson, comes across as much more than a venal opportunist or half-drunk poltroon.

At one point a Miss Holloway tells Booth, “Patriotism isn’t the same as loyalty.” Throughout “The Judges of the Secret Court,” people are faced with difficult, often conflicting loyalties — to family, to friends, to the lost cause of the South, to various ideals, noble and ignoble. Wilkes’s admirably responsible older brother Edwin nearly breaks down from his sense of oppressive family responsibility and guilt. In the end, though, Edwin turns his pain ­inward to create in his signature role a suffering Hamlet ­constantly tormented by the ­unexpected murder of a noble king. Edwin Booth became 19th-century America’s greatest actor.

“The Judges of the Secret Court” isn’t just a novel about John Wilkes Booth; it is a vision of what life and the world do to us. No one, writes Stacton, ever sees the invisible, draconian judges of his title. “But they are there: the whole world is a courtroom, every life is a trial,” and, though we plead, plead, plead, in the end we are all found guilty — if only of being ourselves.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Visit his book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

The Judges of the Secret Court

By David Stacton

New York Review. 255 pp. Paperback, $15.95

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