I think I’ve shared before on the old blog that I’m a fan of historical fiction. In my opinion, (good) historical fiction – especially that which is based closely on real world events and might better be called fictionalized history – combines the best of both worlds: drama, an interesting cast of characters, and a puzzle which one must figure out.
“A puzzle?” you might ask.
Yes, a puzzle.
I have a confession to make. With most books that I read, I start with the last page first and then flip back to the beginning. Most people would say this is weird. It’s the norm for me so I would have to disagree with them. I love puzzles. I love seeing the end result and figuring out how to get there. It’s something I love in my work life as well. Give me the big picture and I will try my damnedest to figure out the details it takes to make that happen.
Reading fictionalized history means that I already know what is going to happen.
A Night of Horrors: A Historical Thriller about the 24 Hours of Lincoln’s Assassination by John C. Berry tells you what is going to happen right in the title and it’s no surprise. Lincoln is going to die. We all know that. It’s a story that has been told time and again, most recently to critical acclaim on the big screen (which I haven’t seen yet but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what happens), but Berry’s tale tells a side of the story that I haven’t heard much about.
Berry takes the side of the assassins. Yes, John Wilkes Booth is the one who gets the publicity – after all, he was the one who succeeded in murdering the president – but what I didn’t realize was how many more men were involved. The plot wasn’t actually to assassinate the president. In fact (at least according to the book and I’ll believe it), the plot started as a plan to kidnap Lincoln and hold him hostage in order to end the Civil War and tilt the victory toward the Southern states. As the War was winding down and the South was clearly losing, the plan shifted to be one of multiple murders. Booth and his cronies planned to take down the entire cabinet – and almost succeeded. I don’t give much away by saying that Booth’s biggest mistake was to assume all his men possessed the same level of hatred and blood lust as he himself possessed.
Even though we do know what happens, I wasn’t as familiar with the events leading up to the assassination and this book was still one giant puzzle for me. Berry outlines the plan pretty early on and you spend the rest of the book hoping for a good outcome – maybe, just maybe, Booth is stopped and Lincoln (arguably the most influential president in our nation’s history) lives. Maybe Booth’s pals succeed, maybe they don’t, but in this fictionalized world where anything really could happen, maybe the events of this night change the outcome of the war completely. Maybe Booth was just a misguided man and maybe he was pure evil.
In addition to choosing great subject matter, Berry is an excellent writer. His descriptive phrases pulled me into the story from the beginning. Perhaps it is simply because Lincoln is such a familiar character, but I really felt like I could see what was going on.
He sighed once again. These we deep cleansing breaths not the sighs of a man in doubt, but those of a man energizing himself with fresh supplies of oxygen.
Reading things like that reminded me that Lincoln’s last days were full of hope for the future of this country. He was already a great man – as evident from the fact that he is still one of the most beloved characters in US history – but he was on the verge of even more greatness.
The gun jumped in Booth’s hand. Since Lincoln had turned to the left to look at someone familiar to him, the bullet slammed through his skull just behind he left ear and plowed a path of wreckage diagonally through his brain and came to rest behind his right eye. Lincoln’s arms jerked up and fell limp, and his head snapped forward from the blast of the gun.
Tell me that you don’t see that happening?
The title of this book says it all: A Night of Horrors: A Historical Thriller about the 24 Hours of Lincoln’s Assassination. It certainly details a night of horrors that shaped our future forever and draws you in to the story in a way I have never experienced before. It was historically accurate as best I can tell and still kept me on the edge of my seat. We might already know what happens but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a puzzle to uncover, piece by piece, and a story to discover anew so many years after it happened.