Timothy L. (“Tim”) O’Brien went to work for The Huffington Post in January 2011, and today serves as executive editor. Prior to that, he worked as an editor for the New York Times in charge of the Sunday business section. He is a published author or non-fiction books, most notably of Trump Nation – The Art of Being Donald (Grand Central Publishing, 2005). Now, however, he has contracted with Random House to produce a series of fictional novels dealing with the Lincoln assassination, the first of which—The Lincoln Conspiracy will be released in September 2012.
This novel caught my attention because—well, because I live in Springfield, Illinois, where we eat, sleep, and drink everything Lincoln and because I walk past the tomb of this, our greatest President, at least twice a week on my walks through Oak Ridge Cemetery. Sadly, however, I don’t think O’Brien’s first novel will add much that is distinctive to the catalog of fictional works that Mr. Lincoln has inspired for all these many years.
There is a cinematic quality to O’Brien’s writing (does he anticipate a movie contract?) reminiscent of the quick and ready action and dark ambiance we have experienced recently in the Sherlock Holmes franchise. In the first chapter, President Lincoln has but recently been assassinated and the city and the nation are in turmoil. We meet Temple McFadden, an Irish detective with the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police, who is on his way to the train station to assist a friend who is unloading some stolen goods. Yes, that is what I said. It appears that Detective—or “Defective” McFadden (as his wife calls him, for reasons I shall explain: it has nothing to do with his character or his lovemaking) has a gambling problem and has to find ways to finance it on the side so as not to inconvenience his wife, whom he dearly loves (and who reciprocates that love and devotion in spite of the man’s many shortcomings).
While at the station, he watches in horror as a man gets his throat cut by some ruffians, and charges into the fray. Here is where the action begins. It seems that Detective McFadden has a bad leg, and has had since he fell from an orphanage window in Dublin severely breaking it. He carries a cane: hence, his wife’s title of “Defective” McFadden. The cane is to McFadden what Lincoln’s silver-bladed axe is to Lincoln the vampire slayer, a very effective weapon. He finds he is too late to help the bleeding man, but finds something in the man’s coat—a notebook. He grabs it, and finds that he is running for his life from a group of men who are out to kill him and get that notebook back. Then, another group of men arrive and start shooting at the first group of men. He barely escapes with his life.
He soon learns that he actually has two documents. One is a diary belonging to Mary Todd Lincoln. The other, an encrypted document that he quickly surmises belongs to none other than John Wilkes Booth, the assassin who has since been killed by agents of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. But who are the men who were shooting at him, and at one another, and what was in these documents that they were willing to kill for? This is the crux of The Lincoln Conspiracy.
With the help of his friend, a free Negro named Augustus, he begins to unravel the secrets of Booth’s diary and to identify a series of actors who are given code names—all except for one. Who is Maestro? Finding out that information will result in several deaths, and endanger both Detective McFadden and his loving wife, Fiona before it is all over.
Temple and his wife are progressives in a world that, by comparison, is playing catch up (post-war D.C was clearly not a place where the black man was welcomed, Emancipation or no!). His wife, Fiona, is trained in medicine, works in the hospital along with male surgeons, and flouts convention in her dress and manners. Both she and Temple were active in the underground railroad (they are acquaintances of Sojourner Truth, who makes a cameo appearance and gives a little speech that—while inspiring— does nothing to advance the plot). In short, O’Brien has projected all of the modern sensibilities onto his protagonist the way most other writers today do when portraying the Old South (did it strike you as odd, in the movie The Patriot that the South Carolina landowner played by Mel Brooks owned no slaves?).
O’Brien has researched the ambiance of 19th century D.C., and provides fascinating detail of drawing rooms, mud-soaked streets, and police precincts even down to the badges worn by the D.C. police which show a complete Capitol building—even though cranes stand over the not-yet-completed structure that dominates the city. His eye for detail is nothing short of fascinating and the reader can almost feel that he is in the District in the weeks following Lincoln’s assassination.
There is something off-putting about the appearance, at various times throughout the novel, of snippets of disembodied verse. Temple is a poet at heart, and perhaps this is to show his affinity for verse even in times of trial. A little research (which takes a curious reader away from the action) reveals that these verses are from contemporaries like Emerson, Whitman, and Thomas Moore (the Scottish poet–not the man who lost his head over Anne Boleyn—his name is spelled differently). Okay. So much for the “Who.” But I am still left to puzzle about the “Why?” I think he could have left these out and done no damage to the well-paced story, which is clearly an action adventure more than a history lesson or a primer on 19th century versification.
But the thing that I found most frustrating was the fact that, after all the shooting, running, and fighting, when we finally do encounter Maestro, and learn all of the things that are supposed to shock us about the whereabouts of Booth and of John Surratt (son of the ill-fated woman who will hang for conspiracy), we don’t know or understand much more about the “conspiracy” than we did starting out. The only message that comes through is that the villains are nasty, capitalistic railroad barons who want to sacrifice all of the President’s altruistic efforts for—dare I say it?—profit. Ugh! Lincoln got rich representing the railroads in Springfield, after all.
The story ends in a violent conflagration which will, undoubtedly, provide a big finish if this is made into a film. And, if action is what we’re after, we frequently don’t bother too much about whether the explanation makes sense. At the end, we still don’t know who Maestro is—but I have a feeling we will be meeting him again in some of the novels to follow.
It seems we can’t let poor Mr. Lincoln rest, judging by all of the novels and films that are out or in the planning stages about him. The Lincoln Conspiracy is well-written (as you would expect from O’Brien), it is a fast read, and it’s not a bad one if you are into exciting chases and shootouts and secret diaries. It has elements of Sherlock Holmes, National Treasure, and The Conspirator, all of which are designed to compel. To that end it is enjoyable. But if you are seeking something deeper, this well isn’t the one to drop your bucket in.
Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris