Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On "Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer" by James L. Swanson *****

I read quite a few academic books--at times, that's part of my job, after all, but I even read them for pleasure. I used to not care much for history because the writing wasn't terribly interesting. As I've gotten older, the quality of the writing in nonfiction works has become, it seems, less important. Don't get me wrong. I have no desire to read poorly written books. However, I no longer expect all authors to be prose stylists like Hemingway or Joyce. Here, however, is a nonfiction book that manages to bring together history and good writing. Okay, no one's going to accuse Swanson of being Joyce either, but he is a good writer, as good as any pop author could be--there are moments in this book where I found myself rushing forward wanting to know what was going to happen next, like any well-plotted mystery novel. And I learned quite a few things I hadn't known before (any history buff probably already knows such things, but to neophytes like me they were new). For example, I didn't know that Lincoln's murder was one of three planned. Booth had originally wanted to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom (i.e., for the surrender of the North); obviously he missed that chance, so the attempted killings (near the war's end) were simply revenge. That same night that Lincoln was shot, a Booth crony attacked the secretary of state and another was sent to kill Vice President Johnson. After Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward were attacked, there was concern for some time that other assassins were lurking intending to do in all the other cabinet officers, so guards were put on their homes and they were urged not to go out (though that didn't stop some from moving about). So it was kind of like 9/11, with Booth and his friends aiming to take out the country's leadership and folks in a panic. The background is fascinating--and the full story is even better.

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