In the spring of 1865 America mourns the loss of its President, Abraham Lincoln, shot dead by John Wilkes Booth. With the Civil War so recently over – its soldiers not yet demobbed – Washington DC is a dangerous place, brutalised and fed by racism, powerful immigrant gangs, drink, opium, traumatised soldiers, freed slaves and greed. Everyone wants to get rich in the new nation and it’s not hard to do thanks to its many victims.
When detective Temple MacFadden discovers two diaries on a dead body at the B&O Railroad station in the city, his life becomes cheap indeed as everyone who is anyone seeks to have the diaries in their hands. Hardly surprising when one learns that the first is the diary of the president’s grieving widow Mary Todd Lincoln while the other was written by his assassin. Within both, or so all sides believe, lie clues to a conspiracy that claimed the life of America’s president. The peace seems very fragile indeed.
As factions fight to recover the diaries, one man stands in the way: Temple McFadden, the hero of The Lincoln Conspiracy. While Temple tries to work out the significance of the diaries, with the help of his friend Augustus – born a free man in spite of his colour, he does his best to do the right thing despite the efforts of wily spymaster Allan Pinkerton, official thug Baker and Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War – not a man to have as one’s enemy. Temple’s own wife Fiona isn’t entirely on Temple’s side either. A female doctor in these male-driven years, Fiona is more than capable of fighting her own battles and, despite her great love for her husband, she feels driven to protect Mrs Lincoln from the consequences of what is in her diary.
It’s no easy thing for the couple and their friends to stay ahead of the forces against them. They have to lose themselves in Washington’s most frightening places – swamps, prisons, hospitals for the mad, whorehouses – while using their wits to keep ahead.
These are fascinating times, though, and quite apart from the vivid settings, O’Brien feeds the book with details of the period, such as photography, the pullman trains, medicine, the movement of slaves from south to north, the soldiers and generals waiting to go home, including Custer. There are snippets from haunting poems throughout, evoking the hardships of the Civil War and the immediate aftermath, as well as flashbacks which add more colour to our knowledge of Temple’s life.
All is written with a fast, immediate prose, not surprising considering the author is a journalist. The style suits the mood of the investigative tale, peopled by men and women who are compelled to find out the truth while surviving day by day. There is a thrill to it. You can sense they enjoy it despite the dangers and the movement of the chase propels the story on.
While I found the ending less than satisfactory, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey as well as the insight into such a fascinating period of recent history. I’ll be looking out for more from Timothy L O’Brien and hope we meet Temple McFadden again.