David O. Stewart’s historical whodunit ‘The Lincoln Deception’ is creaky but satisfying

December 6, 2013

In his new book, David O. Stewart, a historian of the era of the American Revolution, changes not only his time period but also his genre: “ The Lincoln Deception” revolves around the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and it’s a novel, not a work of history. In fact, it’s not just a novel, but something of a murder mystery, even though there’s no mystery about the murder of Lincoln, who was shot in the head by disgruntled young actor John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, just as the Civil War was finally coming to an end.

But one of the most satisfying treats of “The Lincoln Deception” is the engaging way it reminds us that the actual story was much more complicated. Booth’s attack on Lincoln was just one assassination attempt carried out that day. Accomplices Lewis Powell and David Herold were tasked with the assassination of Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward; simple-minded George Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. And even those principal agents had seconds: Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, Edmund Spangler and John Surratt all helped in the extensive plotting, and Surratt’s mother, Mary, owned the Washington boarding house where the conspirators frequently met. The plan of those conspirators, as Stewart writes, “involved nothing less than the decapitation of the United States Government. . . . That was not the act of a deranged mind. Rather, it was a policy.”

Booth was famously shot dead by a Union soldier in a Virginia barn on April 26, but his main accomplices were caught, tried and executed — including Mary Surratt, who, Stewart’s novel claims, made a secret confession before her death, telling the assistant judge advocate general John Bingham details about Booth’s assassination scheme that could bring down the republic if they were ever made known.

Stewart’s book opens a generation after that confession, in 1900, when Bingham is on his deathbed and tells his doctor and former ward, Jamie Fraser, that he will take Surratt’s bombshell confession to his grave. He promptly dies, and while organizing his enormous literary archive, Fraser becomes more and more curious to know the truth of Lincoln’s assassination. A series of coincidences (the one weakness in Stewart’s book) teams up Fraser with ex-ballplayer and aspiring editor Speed Cook, a touchy and insightful African American man who exhibited, as Fraser wistfully notes, “the confidence that comes when a man is good at most things he tries.”

This unlikely pair, whose uneasy chemistry is less convincing than it could be, has no believable motive for so doggedly pursuing their mystery. But they investigate all the satellite figures of the conspiracy, such as Booth’s onetime fiancee, Bessie Hale, and the fugitive John Surratt, who was briefly accepted into the ranks of the elite Papal Zouaves. And when they consult with George Alfred Townsend, an early historian of the assassination, his pointed questions nag at them: “How does this twenty-six-year-old unemployed actor, who never achieved the popularity of his brothers, have enough money to support this entire operation for months and months?”


(Kensington)

Townsend’s essential claim — “Someone else was paying those bills” — shapes the rest of Stewart’s novel. The search takes our heroes from Washington to New York to the Deep South and tests their resolve — especially that of Fraser, who’s not nearly as ready to commit violence as the angry Cook. “How many men walking the streets of Washington had killed someone?” he wonders at one point. “He was surrounded by killers.”

Not quite surrounded, it turns out, but there are more than enough to satisfy any reader of historical whodunits. The mechanics of Stewart’s tale might be a bit on the squeaky side, but its conclusion has a wry double edge that Lincoln himself would have appreciated.

Donoghue is managing editor of the online magazine Open Letters Monthly.

THE LINCOLN DECEPTION

By David O. Stewart

Kensington. 262 pp. Paperback, $15

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