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. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Ben Rehder Hits a Home Run With "The Driving Lesson"

Fourteen-year-old Charlie Dunbar adores his grandfather, Opa, and the feeling is mutual. When classes are dismissed on the last day of school for summer vacation, Charlie is surprised to find Opa outside waiting for him. The old  man wants Charlie to drive him to a doctor’s appointment. After expressing his reluctance because he didn’t have his learner’s permit yet, Charlie finally agrees to drive him. Before he realizes it, Opa has directed him to the interstate. With each mile travelled, Charlie becomes a little bit more nervous. Finally, after an eighteen wheeler rumbles up beside Opa’s car, Charlie asks how much further to the doctor’s office. That’s when Opa tells him that they were headed for Seattle.

Just a few days earlier, Charlie had overheard his parents talking about Opa. They mentioned hospice, an unfamiliar word to him. During a driving lesson with his father the following day, Charlie learns that Opa is terminally ill with cancer. Charlie knows instinctively that the doctor’s appointment in Seattle has something to do with Opa’s condition.

By the time Charlie and Opa reach Lubbock, Charlie is feeling comfortable behind the wheel. His mom has been leaving numerous, frantic voicemail messages on his phone, but Opa isn’t particularly concerned. When they get to Amarillo, Opa asks Charlie to stop at a motel. Once inside, Charlie confronts his grandfather and demands to know what is going on. Opa explains his choices in facing terminal cancer: do nothing, follow the doctor’s treatment plan, or take control of the situation and deal with his impending death on his own terms.

“All I wanted to do was spend some time with my favorite person in the world. That’s you,” Opa tells him. “The truth is sometimes none of your choices in life are good. Sometimes you’re faced with a terrible problem, and the only thing you can do is pick the least objectionable solution. Sucks, Huh? Believe me, I wish I had a fourth option, or ten more options, but I don’t.”

Before they leave Amarillo, Charlie and Opa visit Cadillac Ranch, a sprawling auto museum/junk yard for deceased cars. In Tucumcari, New Mexico, they stop at a local café for a bite of lunch and when Charlie glances at the television he does a double-take.

“It was so totally unexpected, like when you suddenly catch a glimpse of yourself in a mirror, except you didn’t know there was a mirror there. . .that’s what was happening now, because there, on the TV screen, was a photo of me in my football uniform.”

By the time Opa and Charlie get to the west coast, they’ve ditched their credit cards and cell phones, disguised their appearances, visited the Grand Canyon, driven through the breathtakingly beautiful Kaibab National Forest, and had their car burgled. They have observed their own faces in every corner they’ve traversed—television news in motel rooms, cafes, and restaurants and splashed across newspapers at every convenience store.

Ben Rehder’s new young adult novella, The Driving Lesson, chronicles the cross-country journey of a young man and his grandfather. Like Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, it’s the road trip and the companion that elevate the story. While Rehder is best known for his Blanco County mystery series, The Driving Lesson shows his depth and breadth as a writer. He skillfully and with great sensitivity weaves a difficult subject—mortality and loss—into a heartwarming, poignant story filled with humor, hope, and love. This is a story that will have you shedding tears and cracking smiles at the same time. Although it is marketed as a young adult novel, The Driving Lesson is a compelling read that adults will also enjoy.

The Driving Lesson is available through Amazon in print, e-book, and audio editions. All of Rehder’s books, including his latest novel, The Chicken Hanger, are available on his web site at

Appeared in the Boerne Star, January 1, 2010