“The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln” offers similar revelations. In an author’s note, Carter writes, “Our shared notion that the entire darker nation in the middle years of the nineteenth century was just out of slavery and grindingly poor is the sort of racist nonsense that continues nowadays to provide a peculiar comfort to black and white alike.” He confronts that misimpression here by placing a brilliant young black woman named Abigail Canner at the center of his story. The daughter of middle-class parents, Abigail graduated from Oberlin Institute, where she impressed a well-connected law professor. As the novel opens, she gets a job in Washington at the firm that Lincoln has engaged to represent him during his impeachment trial.
Will this highly unusual — not to mention unlikely — 21-year-old black female clerk play a crucial role in American history?
I’ll bet you a crisp new $5 bill she does.
Abigail is intellectual, tenacious and poised, which makes her all the more irresistible to a number of men in Washington, especially her fellow clerk, Jonathan Hilliman, who is thoughtful, honorable and already engaged. (Details, details.) Together this black-and-white crime-fighting duo sift through legal tomes and burned buildings, dodging assassins’ blades and social scandal.
Indeed, it’s hard to take your eyes off Abigail as she becomes a minor celebrity in Washington society. Some of her suitors are moved by genuine affection, others by lust and still others by political calculation. One of the provocative moves Carter makes in this novel is to remind us that mid-19th-century liberals could be just as cynical in their cultivation of impressive black people as their modern-day counterparts. Her suitors and enemies are difficult to tell apart in such a miasma of insincerity as Washington. Even Lincoln’s chief lawyer wants to parade Abigail around, a compromising position she negotiates as best she can. “Rejection, exclusion, condescension,” she thinks, “these were the price the nation daily exacted from the colored race, like a special tax on darkness.”
You can enjoy this as an intelligent summer lark, or you can fuss over the touches of corniness that a writer of Carter’s talent should have abandoned by now. Despite her poise, Abigail sometimes scurries around like a black Nancy Drew, collecting clues with derring-do and always noticing what everybody else missed. Melodramatic cliffhangers mar the endings of too many chapters, and the Great Reveal drags on for far too many pages only because the mystery that Abigail must solve is ridiculously — almost comically — convoluted.
But Carter’s delight in all this material is infectious. He’s a fantastic legal dramatist, and there’s the constant pleasure of seeing his creation of Washington City in 1867, alive with sounds and smells, and seven — seven! — healthy newspapers. The story moves through the viperous gossip of Fanny Eames’s salon, “the retreating forests of Tennally Town,”the Seventh Street Wharf and “on into the dangerous slums of George Town, where no sane Washingtonian ventured after dark.” (Invest, great-great-great-grandpa!) History buffs can test their mettle by trying to unwind Carter’s entangling of fact and fiction, but anyone should enjoy this rich political thriller that dares to imagine how events might have ricocheted in a different direction after the Civil War.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
On July 16, Stephen Carter will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.