THE MURDER OF WILLIE LINCOLN
By Burt Solomon
Forge Books, $25.99, 302 pages
Do not confuse this cracking good detective story with the currently available ghost story, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which I am neither reviewing nor reading.
The only coincidence is the starting point for both, on Feb. 20, 1862 when Willie Lincoln, third son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, dies at the White House during an epidemic of typhoid fever that regularly swept the pestilential city of Washington.
The one book weaves fantasy from that point on. But the author of this book asks a tantalizing question: What if it was murder?
This is hardly a far-fetched idea. In those days the president, his family and the offices based in the White House offered public access that beggars today’s concepts of security. Ordinary citizens could freely enter the front door, wait their turn on a bench and meet directly with Lincoln to voice their opinions, plead a case or, most likely, to beg for a job. There were guards and staff but none of them had themselves undergone even rudimentary clearances. Whole neighborhoods of the city were ghettos of Confederate agents and sympathizers
Terrorism as a weapon of warfare is as old as man’s zeal to murder his enemies. Lincoln himself was forced to use subterfuge to escape assassins to slip into Washington from Baltimore before his inauguration. Various attempts to kidnap him, including two failed plots engineered by John Wilkes Booth, were an occupational hazard. Assassination was a cost-effective way of shifting the balance of power.
A readable whodunit must have a number of key elements. This vivid first outing by author Burt Solomon, a contributing editor for The Atlantic and National Journal, has them all. First there is an engaging plot keyed to the emotional turmoil that made Lincoln’s White House life a constant conflict that would have overcome a lesser man. No president was ever taxed with a more mentally unstable wife than Mary Lincoln, aka to the beleaguered staff as The Hellcat.
In the dark days of the second year of the Civil War, with Mary running up ruinous clothing bills and alternating between rages and despair, Lincoln’s sole source of emotional support had been his two sons in residence at the Executive Mansion, Tad and Willie. An older son, Robert was away at college and a fourth, Eddie, had died of diphtheria in 1850. It was just one of the many epidemics of disease that made childhood a perilous journey and source of parental worry for even the most-well balanced.
But it seems both boys developed fevers after going for an early morning pony ride down 15th Street to skirt the fetid canal that existed where the National Mall is today. During that outing someone unknown throws a stone at the boys, and Willie falls to the ground. Soon stricken, and after improving and lapsing a number of times, Willie finally died while Tad slowly recovered. But one of Lincoln’s two personal secretaries began to suspect foul play.
Equally crucial to a good plot is a strong central character and in John Hay, perhaps Lincoln’s closest aide, Mr. Solomon has created a compelling mix of icy intellectual, canny political maneuverer, barroom tippler (the Willard Hotel, of course) and fearless boxing hobbyist. Like Sherlock Holmes, Hay (later to build his half of today’s Hay-Adams Hotel as his home) both as a real life figure and as a crime novel figure is one of those that can be used almost in perpetuity.
After Lincoln’s death Hay went on for decades as a journalist, diplomat and Republican fixer, ending his public career as secretary of State for both Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. But at the outset of this dark puzzle he is just a few years out of Brown University and being worked to a frazzle acting as Lincoln’s correspondence secretary, press secretary, door keeper and surrogate son.
Still stunned by the shock of Willie’s death, Mary’s predictable howling collapse, and the deep grief that threatens to overwhelm Lincoln, Hay discovers an anonymous letter that someone has stuffed into his office briefcase. It hints at Willie’s assassination as a political act and from that point the hunt is on.
Mr. Solomon shows a gift for taking historically accurate portraits of many well-known figures of that time and bringing them to life. One of my favorites is Lincoln’s real-life Secret Service chief Alan Pinkerton, who does a turn as Sherlock Holmes’ plodding Scotland Yard foil, Inspector Lestrade.
I won’t spoil the suspense of how Hay goes about proving or dismissing his suspicions over Willie’s death. See if you don’t come away from this engaging roman a clef hoping that Mr. Solomon finds something else for John Hay to apply his fertile mind.
• James Srodes’ latest book is “Spies in Palestine: Love, Betrayal and the Heroic life of Sarah Aaronsohn (Counterpoint).
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