The First Assassin
By John J. Miller
Woodbridge Press, $14.99, 376 pp.
Looking for something different for the avid reader on your list? Tired of the buying the latest bestseller with the same old familiar names on the cover every Christmas?
A great option is surprising that friend or relative with The First Assassin — the terrific debut novel by John Miller of The National Review. It’s something they’ll truly appreciate because the odds are good they might not have discovered it without you.
Miller, a top-notch columnist and observer of the cultural scene, proves equally adept at fiction with this crackerjack historical thriller. Imagine Jeff Shaara setting Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal in the first days of the Lincoln presidency, and you have The First Assassin.
In 1861, what the party-crashing socialites did at the recent White House state dinner would have been practically considered an American citizen’s birthright. The building, after all, was the “People’s House,” and presidents were expected to be accessible to all the folks.
Even with war clouds looming and sedition in the air, some are muttering that Lincoln’s use of a diversion to enter Washington unseen — and the amount of uniformed security at his inaugural — are signs of cowardice and a dictatorial impulse on the part of the new president. Americans believe only foreign potentates, with good reason to fear their public, should need bodyguards.
General Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican-American War, assigns Colonel Charles Rook to protect Lincoln; and Rook has good reasons to worry. Washington is a town filled with Southerners, and Lincoln already is the most hated new president in American history. The mere fact of his election has led some Southern states to secede from the Union, with more to follow.
Still, there is great reluctance to seal the president off from the people. After all, nobody has ever made an attempt made on the life of a president — yet.
Rook, who has no experience in security and little support from his superiors, does his best; but his efforts are met with condescension or outright scorn. When he proposes surveillance of known secessionists, he is treated as if he has recommended suspending the Bill of Rights.
Meanwhile, Langston Bennett, a South Carolina plantation owner who sees war on the horizon and does not think the South has the resources to win, has come up with a way to avoid all out war: assassinate Lincoln.
Having been involved with Southern efforts to expand the slave-owning states through adventures in the Caribbean and Central America, Bennett reaches out to “Mazorca,” a dangerous, anonymous killer from Cuba to do the job.
Bennett, however, does not account for the fact that his slaves are not just pieces of furniture. They have heard of Lincoln’s election, and the furor it is creating among the slaveowners has given them hope. When Bennett’s house slave of several decades overhears Bennett plotting, he sends his resourceful granddaughter, Portia, north via the Underground Railroad to warn Lincoln.
By keeping a watch on Violet Greneir, a seductive socialite with Southern sympathies, Rook manages to pick up some of his own leads, including a scheme to blow up the Capitol. However, Violet has spread her charms through the Union side as well, and Rook runs into a political buzzsaw.
All the while, Mazorca patiently stalks his target, amazed that the kill itself presents so little problem; planning his escape is the only real challenge.
Miller does a terrific job of immersing the reader in a time and place that is familiar, but not necessarily that well understood. Historical summaries and novels tend to gloss over the fact that the firing on Fort Sumter did not immediately—or even necessarily– lead to all out war, and secession was more a process of falling dominoes as politicians and generals scrambled to see who would end up on which side.
The author likewise does not allow characters to become mere stereotypes – brutal Simon Legree-type Southerners, nobly suffering slaves and sturdy Union loyalists dedicated to the freedom of all. Miller crafts human beings on all sides with complex motives and various degrees of weaknesses, selfishness, idealism, evil and goodness.
Miller’s detailed research into the physical details of Washington, D.C., in 1860 — the half-completed Washington Monument, the locations of various government buildings, the under-construction Capitol– at first may seem like look-at-me showy research details. But once the ingeniously conceived finish between Rook and Mazorca gets under way, the reader has a vivid picture of the city that brings the confrontations alive.
That’s important to a thriller like this. As in The Day of the Jackal, we know that The First Assassin will not end with the assassin successfully taking out his target. That means the devil is in the details, not just the final resolution of the plot, for this to work.
And work it does. The First Assassin is a fascinating read, and, as a bonus, it’s appropriate for younger readers’ Christmas stockings as well.
But you won’t find it in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. For a variety of reasons, Miller has self-published this fine novel; you can order it directly from him here or at Amazon.com here. This is the first time in 20-plus years of book reviewing that I’ve reviewed a self-published work. It may be another 20 before I do it again; but this is, indeed, a special occasion.