Friday, January 18, 2013
The CIA protects the president . . . the Culper Ring protects the presidency
“. . .suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath. There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger that the end of my finger—dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world’s history as we may perhaps never realize.”
Those are the words of Dr. Edward Curtis, the physician who performed the autopsy of President Abraham Lincoln.
Every president since James Madison has attended religious services at St. John’s church, a house of worship that sits directly across the street from the White House. When the rector is murdered, Secret Service agents question archivist Beecher White because his name and telephone number have been discovered in the pocket of the suspect, along with a nineteenth-century deck of playing cards. In an effort to clear his name, Beecher and his sidekick, Tot, along with other members of the Culper Ring, jump into the fray only to discover that the prime suspect is one of Beecher’s childhood pals, Marshall Lusk, from Sagamore, Wisconsin.
While investigating the rector’s murder, Beecher finds a peephole in a wall of the church that directs his eye to President Abraham Lincoln’s pew. Coupled with the fact that the rector was murdered with a forty-four caliber, single-shot Derringer pistol, the identical weapon that John Wilkes Booth used to kill President Lincoln, Beecher concludes that the murder is a re-creation of Lincoln’s assassination. Beecher also discovers that the ace of spades is missing from the deck of cards belonging to the alleged killer.
The following morning Pastor Kenneth Frick, leader of the Foundry Church, located a scant mile from the White House, is shot twice in the back. When Beecher and Tot put together the evidence, they are convinced that the attempted murder of Frick was a meticulous re-creation of President Garfield’s assassination by Charles Guiteau in 1881. Beecher and Tot learn that Guiteau had a tattoo of a dagger with a red diamond on it. “Two presidential killers,” Beecher concludes. “Two suits of playing cards.”
Because the current president of the United States, Orson Wallace, had attended services at both St. John’s and the Foundry churches, Beecher and Tot believe that he is the common link to the murders of both pastors and speculate that Wallace is the killer’s ultimate target. Would Wallace’s assassination, like Lincoln’s, foist “mighty changes in the world’s history?”
After assassination re-enactments of presidents McKinley and Kennedy, the novel’s twists and turns take the reader over the edge into an accurately depicted but largely unknown presidential hideaway where secrets are born and honor dies.
In his latest thriller, The Fifth Assassin, Brad Meltzer entwines the past with the present through the use of flashbacks to Beecher’s childhood and gradually reveals the lurid backstory that drives Beecher and his childhood friends through a web of political ruthlessness, misplaced loyalties, and ultimate betrayals. As the story builds to a critical mass, Beecher must resolve his contradictory feelings in order to preserve his code of honor.
Meltzer is a student of history and this novel unfolds within an accurate historical context. He brings back familiar characters from The Book of Fate and The Inner Circle, probing their psyches and exposing their inner conflicts, and giving the reader a multi-dimensional insight into their foibles and motivations. His characters are authentic and credible and they beg for a series of novels based upon the Culper Ring. There is never a dull moment and the suspense builds with the turn of each page. The Fifth Assassin is great storytelling, brilliantly executed.