Author: Timothy O'Brien
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1860s / Antebellum US / Washington D.C. / Abraham Lincoln / Assassination / Political Conspiracy / Historical Figures Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: Ballantine Books (9/18/2012)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Following the assassination of President Lincoln, two diaries reveal clues to the extent of the conspiracy, and DC Detective Temple McFadden accidentally stumbles into the middle of it.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories
Do I like the cover?: Eh, I'm not wild about it, but I presume it hits the right notes for the reader they're after -- guys and people who are into Lincoln.
I'm reminded of...: Matthew Pearl
First line: Rain kept the dust down.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you're a fan of conspiracy stories.
Why did I get this book?: Lincoln seems to be hot these days!
Review: Between Lincoln the movie and last year's (or was it 2010's?) Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and my complete lack of professional know-how on publishing and media trends, I'm predicting Lincoln-mania for the next year.
Set in 1865, the novel opens quite dramatically: DC police detective Temple McFadden witnesses a murder at the B&O railroad station and rescues two diaries. Before he has a chance to investigate what the materials contain, he's shot at and pursued and finds himself wanted by numerous groups. Quickly he and his merry band -- his doctor wife Fiona and his bestie, freed slave Augustus -- have to dodge Pinkertons (the agents and Mr Pinkerton himself) as well as conspirators and cover-up-ers as they untangle the dramatic conspiracy they've landed in. At the center of the mystery is Lincoln's assassination and the far-reaching implications of it.
From the start, I was immediately taken with Temple McFadden and his wife Fiona -- although more with his wife -- as I found them vibrant and real. Temple is an Irish immigrant, an orphan adopted as a child and brought to the US, who has his own demons, scars, and strengths, and while he comes off at times as a bit of a uber-hero, he also felt wonderfully human in his foibles. Fiona, with her medical training, should be a doctor on her own but is treated instead as simply a nurse and assistant -- which she bristles at. I feared she'd turn into an anachronistically feminist heroine but she remained anchored in late 19th century reform and post-war societal shifts. I liked her and her marriage to Temple; they held the story together for me and made me care.
This book evoked a wonderful sense of place -- I felt like I saw mid-19th century D.C. vibrantly, and that might be my favorite aspect of the novel. Antebellum DC is not a place/era I'm familiar with, and I really loved the dirty, grimy, rural and urban center O'Brien evoked. It's obvious O'Brien has done an immense amount of research into the time, which can be felt in the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink narrative that was, now and then, a little too detailed.
I'm not super familiar with this era, so I can't say how accurate O'Brien's history or conclusions are, but one blogger felt this was a bit revisionist/alterna-historical at times, so sticklers might not be so wild about this.
If I'm right about a new era of Lincoln-themed fiction, this novel is a good start to the trend: meaty, imaginative, loaded with detail and ambiance.
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