By Ron Charles
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; C04
By John Smolens
Three Rivers. 338 pp. Paperback, $15
Alleged White House party crashers Michaele and Tareq Salahi never posed any threat to the president, but they reached him so easily at a time of heightened security that the parallels to a tragic encounter 100 years ago are truly frightening. In 1901, as today, America was suffering economic turmoil while battling shadowy zealots trying to destabilize Western governments with acts of terror and assassination. These early-20th-century anarchists disrupted markets and kept political leaders in a state of constant anxiety. Given the threat level, the rumors about plots against the president's life and the unprecedented security arrayed to protect him, how could a young man walk up to President William McKinley and murder him? That shocking breach of security is the subject of John Smolens's smart and compelling historical thriller.
Although the story takes place in Buffalo, it's at a time when the influence of Washington, D.C., is flooding over that city. Newly reelected President McKinley is coming in a month with his fragile wife to see the Pan-American Exposition and deliver the most important speech of his career. He's determined to be accessible, even with the murders of Lincoln and Garfield still haunting the nation. A Pinkerton detective named Jake Norris has been sent ahead from the capital to investigate any possible threats, but the leads are so numerous that "it's like trying to hold water in your palm." On the first page, one of Norris's recently hired spies is pulled from the Erie Canal; someone beat her to death with a rope. So begins a frantic search to stop a man who will eventually alter 20th-century history.
Smolens creates the whole spectrum of 1901 Buffalo, from the garish whorehouses where assassins' plans are whispered, to the elegant residence where the McKinleys and their entourage prepare for the largest crowd that has ever seen a president. But beyond the rich detail of an era rushing from horse-drawn carriages to newfangled automobiles, the novel is very much invested in its ensemble of characters, both real and invented. The relationship between McKinley and his wife is drawn with such tenderness that the dim sepia-toned images of our 25th president -- so long eclipsed by Teddy Roosevelt -- will be forever replaced in your mind. Detective Norris is a striking figure, too, an arrogant, brutally efficient man determined to maintain the Pinkertons' reputation without any qualms about civil rights. But the real hero of the novel is a canal worker named Moses Hyde, whom Norris enlists to spy on an anarchist who's been talking about shooting the president.
The Pan-American Exposition has never attained the mythic status of Ford's Theatre or Dealey Plaza, but if you're interested in a historical novel like this, you already know what's going to happen to McKinley in Buffalo, which makes creating suspense a serious problem. Smolens surmounts that challenge by placing the assassination just a third of the way through the novel. While the tragedy plays out with sober inevitability, it's still an extraordinarily gripping scene, slowed to quarter speed and realized in small, intimate details.
Leon Czolgosz (Shol-gosh), the calm young man who walks up to McKinley and shoots him twice with a handgun, is a haunting presence throughout "The Anarchist." Convinced that "as long as there are leaders, none of us will ever be free," Czolgosz won't defend himself or help his court-appointed lawyers enter an insanity plea during the cursory trial. Smolens has no interest in exonerating this lost son of Polish immigrants, but he presents the assassin in all his odd contradictions and tragic naivete. The man who sometimes went by the name "Neiman" ("Nobody" in German) is eerily gentle and egotistical, alternately fragile and impassioned, and deeply entranced by the rabble-rousing of Emma Goldman. Seeing the mob trying to break into the prison and kill him, he's pleased: "He had done this," he thinks with pride. "He had caused them to come together. Hatred and anger were necessary to change. . . . Perhaps this one act, assassinating William McKinley, would spark the revolt and thousands of workers would rise up." It's a terrifying example of the danger posed by one lonely, messianic man. "You're perfectly rational," a psychiatrist tells Czolgosz in prison. "People like you will be a great threat in the future."
Have you ever cut yourself on a piece of glass without realizing it? Just like that, Smolens slides through gruesome episodes in such muted, unadorned prose that you barely realize what's happened until you see the blood. The genius of this novel is the tension he creates by moving quickly from quiet, moving scenes in the president's sickroom or Czolgosz's prison cell to raw, startling flashes of violence during the criminal investigation. As the country burns with paranoia, anarchists, socialists and communists are rounded up, beaten and detained, while Norris and Hyde race to catch a conspirator who may kill them first.
It's an enthralling descent into the dark byways of the criminal mind and the vast system of canals that ran through Buffalo. Here is the crime that launched the 20th century, the unlikely imprint of a lonely man's delusion on the soft metal of the world.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/roncharles.