Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Brad Meltzer probes George Washington's "Culper Ring" in "The Inner Circle"

Beecher White loves his job as a researcher at the National Archives in Washington, D. C. “As they told me when I first started as an archivist three years ago,” says Beecher, “the Archives is our nation’s attic. A ten-billion-document scrapbook with nearly every vital file, record, and report that the government produces. No question, that means this is a building full of secrets. Some big, some small. But every day, I get to unearth another one.”

In Brad Meltzer’s new political thriller, The Inner Circle, a 26 year-old secret threatens to derail a presidency wrought with lies and deceptions and pits the survival of the president against the preservation of his office.

When Beecher’s old flame, Clementine Kaye, asks him to help her search for the identity of her deceased father, Beecher tries to impress her by sneaking into a SCIF—Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility—used by the President of the United States, Orson Wallace, for viewing top secret documents. Clementine inadvertently knocks over the President’s chair and discovers a tattered and mostly gutted old “Entick’s New Spelling Dictionary” hidden in its bottom. On close inspection Beecher finds an inscription on the book’s inside front cover: Existus Acta Probat. The outcome justifies the deed. Beecher instantly recognizes the motto as an aphorism used by George Washington on his bookplates and concludes that the original owner of the book was, in all probability, our first president. Because the book was concealed, Beecher also presumes that it is serving a clandestine purpose. Beecher’s security guard friend, Orlando, instantly grasps the implication of the discovery and yanks the security system’s videotape so that no one will discover that they were there. Beecher stashes the dictionary under his blue lab coat and pulls Clementine from the room. Soon after, Orlando is found dead under suspicious circumstances.

Beecher shares the old dictionary with his mentor and fellow archivist Aristotle “Tot” Westman and they discover that the relic was used by Washington in 1775 to communicate with his Culper Ring, a small band of loyalists who spied on the British during the Revolutionary War.

“The Culper Ring weren’t soldiers. They were normal people—a group no one could possibly know—even Washington didn’t know their names. That way they could never be infiltrated—no one, not even the commander-in-chief, knew who was in it.”

When Tot checks the archive’s records he finds that that the old dictionary has been checked out by someone named Dustin Gyrich 14 times in 14 weeks, each time coinciding with a Presidential visit to the SCIF. Further research shows that Gyrich has been checking out books in the National Archives for over a hundred and fifty years.

In The Inner Circle the Culper Ring didn’t disband after the Colonies beat the British. This secret organization is still going strong and Beecher’s discovery of the 200 year-old dictionary triggers a chain of events that brings to light the permanency of the spy ring and tests the very cannons upon which our country was founded. Beecher could not foresee that he and Clementine had stumbled upon a presidential secret so important it could place their lives in jeopardy.

From the first page The Inner Circle is a high energy adventure that draws upon interesting and little-known historical facts, taking the possibilities of the future and the certainties of the present and intertwining them with the secrets of the past. As with all of this author’s thrillers, the plot and sub-plots twist and turn as the story unfolds, making it impossible for the reader to guess the outcome. Meltzer resurrects his evil character Nico from The Book of Fate as Clementine’s father and cleverly uses him as an omniscient narrator to decipher and reveal the old dictionary’s hidden missives.

As a thriller, The Inner Circle is an absorbing read. The author’s view of history adds a fascinating dimension to the story. One of Beecher’s co-workers illustrates Meltzer’s take on the history-making process. “. . . history isn’t just something that’s written. It’s a selection process. It chooses moments, and events, and yes, people—and it hands them a situation they should never be able to overcome. It happens to millions of us every single day. But the only ones we read about are the ones who face that situation, and fight that situation, and find out who they really are.”

The Inner Circle is a very well crafted story with authentic characters and a clever plot. This is a thriller that probes the dark side of political omnipotence and leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling that perhaps it is all too real.