Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book Review: The First Assassin


One of the things I most enjoy in writing about Abraham Lincoln is the opportunity to inform my readers of new or noteworthy books about him. While most of the books I write about in this forum are nonfiction, I just finished a novel about an assassin stalking President Lincoln in 1861. It's one of the best thrillers I've read in recent years. The following paragraphs do not contain any spoilers as they are taken from the synopsis on the book's back cover.

The First Assassin opens just weeks before Abraham Lincoln is to be sworn in as the nation's 16th president. The southern states have of course begun to secede from the Union, with South Carolina especially a hotbed of anti-Lincoln sentiments. A plantation owner, Mr. Langston Bennett, outraged at Lincoln's election and his strong anti-slavery position, hires an assassin to kill Lincoln before slavery is ended.

Meanwhile in Washington City (as the nation's capital was called then), Colonel Charles Rook is determined to protect the president at all costs. He receives no support from the head of the U.S. Army, General Winfield Scott (of course a real person), in his mission to protect the president-elect. Nonetheless, Rook defies orders and organizes his own small team of spies consisting of U.S. Army soldiers to track various death threats to Mr. Lincoln. As certain murders happen in the city, it gradually dawns on Rook that he is up against a cold-blooded killer who will let nothing and no one get in his way in his attempt to kill Lincoln.

Along the way, the reader is introduced to Mrs. Violet Grenier, a resident of Washington City, who harbors strong pro-Southern sympathies. She uses her feminine wiles and standing as a dame of society to spy on Lincoln and help in the conspiracy against him.

The key to saving the president is a runaway slave named Portia who holds vital information about the assassin's identity. It remains to be seen if she can provide it to the authorities in time.

As I wrote earlier, this book is historical fiction, a crime thriller. It's serious, as opposed to the recent "mash up" novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. While this account in Assassin is fictional, it is based on real-life death threats Lincoln faced upon his election to the presidency. Lincoln continued facing threats throughout his presidency, of course falling to the final conspiracy.

I found The First Assassin to be very enjoyable. It is well-written with excellent character development. The female spy, Violet, is based on real-life women who spied for the Confederacy, who were not beneath using their "charms" (including sex) to obtain information they sought. It's easy to understand the frustrations and tension Colonel Rook feels as the killer draws closer to Lincoln. When the assassin's movements are followed by the reader, a chill occasionally rises as his cold-blooded murders take place. All quite gripping.

Some of the book is a tad predictable, especially a certain disguise the potential assassin uses. But that is the only quibble I have. I read the book (446 pgs) in just a few days, because I couldn't wait to see how it ends.

Lincoln himself does appear briefly in the novel, as does his private secretary, John Hay. Lincoln's actions of not wanting a lot of security are factual, as are some of the words he speaks.

The First Assassin is authored by John J. Miller, a frequent writer for Wall Street Journal, the National Review, and other publications. He has written books of nonfiction, but Assassin is his debut novel. The book was published just last week by AmazonEncore (yes, that Amazon as in the giant online seller). According to its site, AmazonEncore "identifies exceptional yet overlooked books and works with the authors to introduce or re-introduce their books to readers." Mr. Miller originally self-published The First Assassin and it was readers of that edition who brought attention to AmazonEncore about the novel. The book may be ordered here.

I agree with those early readers and AmazonEncore. This is indeed an exceptional debut novel.


My rating:







5.0 out of 5.0 "Rebel Rose" Greenhow, a real-life female spy for the Confederacy.

Abraham Lincoln and Egypt?

I've been home for just a few days now from a trip to Egypt to see the wonders of the pyramids, the Sphinx, the temples at Luxor, and the great temple of King Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. The trip was a surprise gift from my wife this past Christmas, and it fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine to see the splendors of ancient Egypt.

Of course, this blog is not about my travels to the Middle East; it's about Abraham Lincoln. So I had to do a bit of research to find out what connections, if any, Mr. Lincoln might have had to Egypt either before or during his presidency. There of course aren't many, but I did learn about some dealings his administration had with Egypt during the Civil War.

Egypt in those days was technically still part of the Ottoman Empire, which was based in Constantinople (Istanbul). However, thanks to an invasion of Egypt by Napoleon III in the early 18th Century, that country was more or less autonomous of the Ottomans. Lincoln's Secretary of State, William H. Seward, realized at the outbreak of the Civil War that it would be important to assure the neutrality of the Ottomans, just as it was important to keep France and England neutral.

Seward's efforts resulted in a treaty signed with the Ottoman Empire in 1862 which guaranteed continued trade between the U.S. and the empire. Even more importantly, it guaranteed to the U.S. that any Confederate pirates preying on U.S. trade vessels would be apprehended and detained.

Lincoln also wrote a letter to the "Wali" of Egypt (similar to a governor) during his presidency protesting the harassment and abuse of a U.S. missionary in that country. In response, Egypt promised to punish those who had abused the missionary and again assured Lincoln that Confederates would not be permitted in Ottoman waters (Mediterranean, Black Sea, Red Sea, etc.) This action by Lincoln had the additional effect of deeply impressing religious Christians in Europe, which further helped to keep England and France out of the Civil War.

This post was based on two different sources. The primary source is a speech titled "Lincoln and The Middle East" given by Mr. Austin Knuppe at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. It's a learned and fascinating look at how America's involvement in the Middle East actually developed in earnest during the Lincoln administration. Very worthwhile reading.

The second source for this posting is The Collected Works Of Abraham Lincoln, an indispensable reference for all of Lincoln's known letters, speeches, and other writings. Lincoln scholars both professional and amateur use this source in their research.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Enhancing Lincoln's Legacy In Washington, D.C.

The scene of Abraham Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., has been undergoing an expansion project since 2007. The theater itself reopened last year after months of renovation added a new museum and other features which cost an estimated 35 million dollars.

That was only the beginning. Work continues on the Ford's Theater Center For Education and Leadership, which has the goal of enhancing the Lincoln experience for visitors. A 10-story building located across 10th Street from the theater will house various exhibits about the aftermath of the assassination and will explore Lincoln's continued legacy. The center will be run jointly by the National Park Service and the Ford's Theater Society. The target opening date is February of 2012.

Some of the planned displays include a replica of the barn where John Wilkes Booth was shot at the end of the 12-day manhunt, and the story of the 20 day journey of the Lincoln funeral train from Washington to Springfield. Still another feature will be a 3-story tall sculpture of "books" to help people fathom just how much has been written about the 16th president.

Lincoln was a complicated man and his legacy has continued to evolve in the 145 years after his death. For some, he remains the Great Emancipator. To others, he was a tyrant who began this nation on the path to greatly expanded powers of the federal government. The director of the Ford's Theater Society, Mr. Paul Tetreault, hopes that visitors will be able to draw their own conclusions after touring the center.

This posting was based on the original article from the August 21, 2010 edition of The New York Times.

 
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