In Jim Lehrer's new novel, The Franklin Affair (Random House, $23.95), the specter of plagiarism looms over a mystery that not only consumes a young historian's career but also threatens to end it prematurely.
Reginald Raymond Taylor, PhD -- R to his friends -- discovers potentially damaging information about Benjamin Franklin. This Revolutionary War-era scuttlebutt is dangerous because Ben is still very much alive for historians, academics and fundraisers of Benjamin Franklin University (BFU). R is also sitting on an academic committee trying to bring down a hotshot historian accused of plagiarism. Finally, he is coping with the recent death of his mentor, a possible plagiarist with a psychotically elaborate collection of Franklin memorabilia.
Lehrer's 15th novel is a slightly stiff academic thriller geared to history buffs, packed full of Franklin facts. Readers will perhaps be reminded of Stephen L. Carter's The Emperor of Ocean Park but with less drama and regrettably fewer hair-raising chase scenes. Even The Franklin Affair's love story is far from sexy: R and his shrewish girlfriend share "a love of revolutionary history as well as of good chardonnay, superior scholarship, Mercedes-Benzes, Amtrak, American Express Platinum perks, and privacy." Readers may also recall the 2002 plagiarism controversy that dogged historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen E. Ambrose and the controversy as aired on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Here, Lehrer returns to the contested ground, with an imaginary take on the issue.
Lehrer has obviously logged his time on the Metroliner between Washington and Philadelphia -- every detail of Philadelphia is lovingly rendered, from the ghostly shadow of where Franklin's house once stood to the prominent role that the Franklin-founded University of Pennsylvania plays in the city's socioeconomic life. Lehrer achieves almost perfect geographic accuracy, except when he invents places. He puts "Franklin University," the center of Ben scholarship, approximately on the site of the Independence Mall historic district, the Liberty Bell and the new National Constitution Center. Unfortunately, the city of Philadelphia depends so heavily on revenues from historical tourism that if BFU were actually on Independence Mall, the city economy would have flatlined long ago.
But Lehrer has captured a surprisingly fascinating subculture: professional historians who are fans. His Franklin followers, aka "the Ben Crowd," are like Trekkies, living among piles of memorabilia and Franklin-emblazoned tchotchkes. He even introduces two Franklin impersonators; one leads tours, the other engineers his death on the same day as Franklin's. Lehrer points out that the line between historians and historical re-enactors can get blurry, as can the line between fiction and headlines.Meredith Broussard is the editor of an upcoming anthology, "The Encyclopedia of Exes: 26 Stories By Men of Love Gone Wrong."