Saturday, April 20, 2024

History Comes Alive With The Lincoln Conspiracy


Scott D. Parker

(To commemorate the Apple TV series, Manhunt (the story of the search for John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators), here is a review (from 2020) of a book that looks at the first attempt on Lincoln's life.)

There's a moment in The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Killed America's 16th President - and Why It Failed where the President-elect hears dire warnings from two independent sources that his life is in danger and he takes action. He agrees to sneak out of a pre-Inauguration Day party in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, don a disguise, and be whisked away by train, all in an effort to thwart the plot to kill him in Baltimore. That moment consists of me breathlessly wondering: Is he gonna make it?

It's been 155 years since his death. There's a giant statue of President Lincoln in Washington, He's on the penny. He's one of the most famous Americans of all time. He might be recognized in nearly every corner of the world here in 2020. Of course he makes it.

But that's the testament to the writing skill of Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch: they weave the story and the details in such a way as to make history read like a thriller. And dang if this story won't thrill you.

We all know Lincoln's ultimate fate on Good Friday, 1865, but few know of the first plot to kill him before he even took office. I'll admit I learned about it back in grad school at the University of North Texas but it was only in passing. I knew it was foiled and that private detective Allan Pinkerton played a key role. But I never knew the details that fill over 350 pages in this remarkable book.

Much like they did with The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington (2019), Meltzer and Mensch dig deep into the details of this 1861 plan hatched by a cabal of Southern loyalists. They didn't want the president-elect—who carried no slave-holding states in the recent election—to take his place in the White House. At the time, the Republican Party was against the institution of slavery even if Lincoln himself tried to steer a narrow line between free and slave.

Following a tradition dating back to America's first president, Lincoln traveled from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., in the weeks leading up to his inauguration. Two things gave the Southerners fuel for their plot: Lincoln's itinerary was published in many papers and the rail-splitter from the west would have to change trains in Baltimore. What made this transfer problematic was not only was Maryland a slave state, but the transfer wasn't merely changing trains in a single station. No, this change from one rail line to another involved literally moving a train car about a mile from one station to the next. In that time, with the expected throngs of Southern sympathizers clogging the streets, the president-elect's life would be in jeopardy.

Hired by one of the railroad men to protect threats against the railroad, Pinkerton and one of his agents, Kate Warne, uncovered the real plot. It was then Pinkerton urged Lincoln to change his plans. The new president demurred until a fateful night when word of the plot arrived from his recent rival and future Secretary of State, William Seward. Convinced of the threat, Lincoln finally allowed himself to be disguised and sneak into the nation's capital under the cover of darkness.

Like they did with their Washington book, Meltzer and Mensch write their prose in the present tense. It gives the story an immediacy, a will-he or won't-he vibe that's pretty darn exciting. Often, they'll recount a scene and then cut to a contemporary scene in another part of the country. You really get a bird's eye view of the whole situation.

If you are a fan of audiobook, preeminent narrator, Scott Brick, reads the book. He could read the phonebook and I'd pay to hear it. He narrates everything he does so well, and I especially like the timbre of his voice as he reaches the end of the book and reads the last lines from Meltzer and Mensch.

History isn't just names and dates, laws and wars, pop culture and events. It is people, real people, living their lives and making decisions based on the best knowledge they have at any given time. Some decisions are momentous: the outcome of the 1861 election, the secession of the Southern states, the foiled assassination in 1861 and the successful one four years later. This book peels away some of the veneer Lincoln now lives with in the American imagination in the 155 years since his death, showing us a real guy, beset by personal and national tragedy, who is doing the best he can. Ditto for Pinkerton, Warne, and the Southerners.

Books like these breathe life into history, and as a historian, we need more books like this so folks in the 21st Century can be entertained and learn a little something along the way.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Patricia Highsmith's Chillers

You could say that the current Netflix series Ripley goes retro since it uses black and white. Of course that use reflects the era Ripley is set in, but for a different kind of retro connected to Patricia Highsmith, there is an old TV series called Chillers, which I hadn't thought about in a while until I saw Ripley’s trailers and began thinking about all the Highsmith adaptations there have been over the years. I wrote a long piece once about many of these adapations, starting with 1951's Strangers on a Train and running through the 2009 adaption of The Cry of the Owl (I wrote the piece before Carol, The Two Faces of January, and the new Deep Water came out), for the now inactive Hardboiled Wonderland blog, and if you're interested, that's a piece you can still find here, Picture Books: Patricia HighsmithI mention Chillers in the piece, but I thought now would be as good a time as any to bring up the series again because among Highsmith adaptations, it seems to be one less known. 

Chillers aired from 1990 to 1992. There were twelve episodes in total, and each one is based on a Patricia Highsmith short story. It's a TV series that has the look of its time, but with its solid production values, stellar casting, and drolly cruel storylines, it's quite entertaining. A British-French co-production, the series is in the mode of the series Tales of the Unexpected, the show that featured many adaptations of Roald Dahl stories and that Dahl often introduced himself. For Chillers, Anthony Perkins serves as host, giving the audience a sardonic and slightly sinister verbal preview of the tale to come. And the quality of the stories themselves clearly helped draw the excellent actors involved, with people such as Ian McShane, Edward Fox, James Fox, Tuesday Weld, Nicole Williamson, Ian Holm, Marisa Berenson, and Ian Richardson in leading roles. I won't go over every episode here, but if you want to check the series out by watching one, I would start with the one called Day of Reckoning. It's adapted from a story of the same name from the collection The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murders, and what makes this episode of the twelve noteworthy is its director – Sam Fuller.

Fuller’s emotive, tabloid style would seem ill-suited to Patricia Highsmith’s frostiness.  But maybe the reason he decided to accept this assignment is because of how weird the plot is.  It has to do with a young man visiting his aunt and uncle’s chicken farm, an automated abomination of a place where new technologies torture the chickens but make them astonishingly productive egg layers.  The uncle, played by Phillipe Leotard, is ecstatic about what the new methods make possible, but his wife, Assumpta Serna, has reservations.  Manipulating artificial days and nights for the cooped up chickens, never letting them feel natural dirt, the uncle doesn’t seem to know or care that all the mistreatment has made the birds insane.  In the building where they’re kept, they cluck incessantly, at a volume loud enough to make talking impossible.  The uncle loves his newfound profits (traditional chicken rearing left him struggling financially), but the aunt and the visiting nephew feel uncomfortable with the business despite its success.  Also in the mix is the married couple’s pre-teen daughter, a sweet girl who loves her kitten, and it’s a misfortune that happens to her that prompts the story’s final wicked and wickedly funny actions.

As I say, I think it was the strangeness that drew Fuller.  The source material allows him to play, like in the baroque shots he does showing the farm reflected off a chicken’s eye.  There is a dream sequence in the episode that does not occur in the story, its wildness unadulterated Fuller, especially its musical section and the chicken talking to the nephew with the voice of the aunt.  But for the most part, Fuller and his co-writer Christa Lang are faithful to the short story, transposing to the screen the ideas in it.  Human greed, exploitation of animals, science run amuck, and the danger that Nature may turn on man – all these are in the story and episode both.  Fuller brings a cockeyed energy to the project, but he also exercises discipline to foreground what Highsmith stresses.  Although it’s a mere 50 minute episode, and an eccentric episode at that, Day of Reckoning is an example of a work that melds two unlike sensibilities.  It’s also a hell of a lot of nutty fun.

I'd say start with Day of Reckoning, and if you like it, go from there to other episodes of Chillers. They're all easy to find, streaming in places like Amazon Prime and Tubi.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Reading Outside Your Usual Genre Can Deliver Surprises


Scott D. Parker

In his newsletter this week, author Rob Hart gave some recent recommendations, including one outside of his typical genre. I concur but mere days earlier, I had done the same thing.

To quote a wise man, I have taken my first step into a larger world.

How It Started

My wife has read nearly every book Elin Hilderbrand has written. Back five, six years ago, I even created a list on my phone with the books we had so that if I found myself at a bookstore and I happened upon one of her books, I knew which ones we owned. Heck, we even went to an event where we got to meet her and get her autograph.

Recently, I checked out Hilderbrand’s latest, The Five-Star Weekend, from the library and, predictably, my wife flew through the pages. A couple of Fridays ago, she put it on the kitchen table, a signal for me to return the book to the library. For whatever reason, I picked up the book and read the description on the dust jacket. 

The Five-Star Weekend tells the story of a middle-aged widow, Hollis, who, as a means of moving on from her husband’s death the previous December, invites four women to her home on Nantucket Island for a weekend of curated food, wine, activities, and more wine. The catch is that she invites women who represent certain phases of her life. Tatum from childhood, Dru-Ann from college, Brooke from when they both were new moms in their thirties, and Gigi, a woman Hollis knows (but has never met in real life) via Hollis’s cooking blog. To document everything, Hollis hires her daughter, a film student, to create a documentary (and hopefully break down the wall that stands between them). 

Now, having read the dust jacket, I was intrigued. I opened the first page to see how it started.

Twenty-nine pages later, I walked into the next room, book in hand, and said, “I am in!”

The Relatable Characters

I’ll admit that one of the reasons I locked into this story was that the characters were my age. I even laughed out loud when, in chapter one, Hilderbrand mentions Hollis was part of the high school Class of 1987. That’s me. 

I saw aspects of myself in each character. I related to Tatum’s down-to-earth outlook on life. I lamented when Dru-Ann’s character experienced manufactured outrage that was completely false. I sometimes experience the imposter syndrome Brooke feels (don’t we all?), and I look at certain groups and pine to join them like Gigi. I also understood how each woman views the others. 

As you would imagine, each woman has things to hide and each woman has thoughts about the others and, over the course of a long weekend, it all spills out.

The bottom line: even though it’s a work of fiction, these five women are real people. And I really enjoyed spending time with them.

Effortless Reading

My wife loves Hilderbrand’s books because they are so easy to get into and read. I concur.

I ended up checking out the audiobook from the library as well so I was able to listen on my commutes and when doing yard work and read the hardcopy at night. Having the book in hand helped me see how Hilderbrand actually crafted her writing.

She changes points of view often, almost paragraph by paragraph if more than one character is in the given scene. She also writes in present tense, which gives the book an immediacy, especially when she writes phrases like “Brooke was thinking…[this]” and “Hollis was thinking…[that].” 

Loved it. As a writer who tends to write any given scene from the POV of a singular character, it was engrossing to be in the heads of all five characters, six when you include the daughter. 

The pages just flew by and I was completely enthralled with this story. Given last week’s post about books that pack an emotional punch, I’ll have to include The Five-Star Weekend in the list. While I got misty when it came to what happened to the characters, I really got the point where I didn’t want the fictional weekend—or the actual book—to end.

Readers of a Certain Age

The Five-Star Weekend asks questions of its characters and, by extension, its readers as well, but it clearly comes down on the side of friendship. They are special—at every phrase of our lives—and they need attention and cultivation and should never be taken for granted. This is a good thing for younger readers to understand but it’s also a gentle reminder for older readers as well. You know that friend you haven’t spoken to in years? Give them a call and catch up. You’ll be so glad you did.