Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Honestly, Abe!

In my Kirkus Reviews column this week, I present an argument for Stephen L. Carter’s new novel, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln (Knopf), being shelved in the crime-fiction section of your local bookstore. Of that book’s plot, I explain:
This story offers a classic “what-if” scenario. In its alternative construction of history, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, doesn’t die in April 1865 after being shot in the back of the head by renowned actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Instead, Lincoln survives, while on the same night Vice President Andrew Johnson (who in reality succeeded Honest Abe) is assassinated by a Booth co-conspirator, and another wounds Secretary of State William Seward so severely, the diplomat retreats from public view. (Actually, Seward recovered from his wounds and went on to engineer the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia.)

Two years after Booth’s assault, and following the death (by suicide?) of the president’s wife, Lincoln’s growing contingent of enemies--led by radicals within his own Republican Party, who believe the post-Civil War South deserves much harsher treatment than it has received--endeavor to oust him from the Executive Mansion. They charge Lincoln with, among other offenses, acting the role of “a petty tyrant” and trying to usurp congressional authority by establishing military rule in what was then known as Washington City, “with himself at the head.”
Plenty of novels over the years have followed similar “counterfactual” storytelling tracks; Douglas C. Jones’ 1976 work, The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer, comes to mind immediately, followed by Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), and of course Stephen King’s recent 11/22/63. Like Chabon’s book, Carter’s new offering mixes alternative history with recognizable elements of detective and mystery fiction, but then he layers on top of all that a compelling legal drama. Even though Impeachment’s Lincoln isn’t nearly so vivid or engaging as Gore Vidal’s Honest Abe was in Lincoln (1984), Carter brings forth a political-strategizing side of the 16th president that’s defendable as historically accurate, and that we don’t often see.

As I write in the piece, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is “one of the finest historical thrillers I’ve read so far this year.”

You’ll find my full Kirkus post here.

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