Historical Fiction Review: ‘The Lincoln Conspiracy: A Novel’ by Timothy L. O’Brien
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
A nation shattered by its president’s murder. Two diaries that reveal the true scope of an American conspiracy. A detective determined to bring the truth to light, no matter what it costs him
A lot of what the novel’s synopsis promised was delivered but the experience of reading it wasn’t always a smooth process. Since it’s a matter of historical fiction that John Wilkes Booth was the perpetrator of President Lincoln’s assassination, any author trying to add mystery has to work pretty hard. In this case, I thought that the conspiracy angle was a little bit weak; detective Temple McFadden comes across some intriguing diaries almost by accident and becomes gripped by a need to reveal their secrets. For me, there was an imbalance between the amount that Temple seemed to be prepared to sacrifice to retain the diaries. I’m hesitant to blame the author entirely because I think that a lot of the tension is likely to be built around twists on history, the more subtle of which I missed entirely because I’m British and have only a basic knowledge of America’s history. That said, relying so heavily on prior knowledge means that the “characters” aren’t fully drawn and are hard to get to grips with when you don’t already have some expectations or understanding of them. Readers with a similar level of prior knowledge to mine might feel a little adrift too.
The exceptions to that are Temple McFadden and his wife and friends. Perhaps that’s because they were the fictional element and so had to be drawn more fully. Fiona was a particular highlight for me. I loved how plucky and resourceful she was and I respected Temple a lot more for the faith he put in his wife’s abilities, letting her help him and herself rather than trying to save her all the time. Augustus and Nail were great additions too and there were some moments that really made my heart hurt for them all.
The plot’s pace varied quite a lot: there were times that I was cramming as many pages as possible into my train journey and evenings; there were others when I would put my eReader aside and then wouldn’t feel overly inclined to pick it back up again. The blend between thriller and historical fiction didn’t always feel very natural, with some characters reminiscing to weave in some historical context. The background was interesting but didn’t help the story maintain its momentum or focus. After such a detailed build-up, the ending was quite abrupt. There’s a fairly significant revelation late on that made me double-take but more could have been made of it and very shortly after it, everything was done and dusted and I was left wondering what the point of the twist actually was if it wasn’t going to be used more.
A health warning for more sensitive readers: the author doesn’t shy away from the harsher language and terms that are all but unheard in modern society. It lends a certain authenticity to the novel’s tone but reading the word n**ger can be jarring.
Overall: A very detailed and well-written thriller, The Lincoln Conspiracy: A Novel will appeal to those interested in American history, the politics behind the abolition of slavery and, of course, the assassination of President Lincoln. Just remember that if either you aren’t American or you need a little refresh of your history, I would recommend spending a few minutes having a quick catch-up on the key political players at the time if you want to get the most out of the story.
Date finished: 14 November 2012
Source: Received from the publisher as part of a HF Virtual Book Tour in return for an honest review
Genre: Historical fiction; Thriller
Published: by Ballantine Books on 18 September 2012
Timothy L. O’Brien is the Executive Editor of The Huffington Post, where he edited the 2012 Pulitzer Prize–winning series about wounded war veterans, “Beyond the Battlefield.” Previously, he was an editor and reporter at The New York Times. There, he helped to lead a team of Times reporters that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Public Service in 2009 for coverage of the financial crisis. O’Brien, a graduate of Georgetown University, holds three master’s degrees — in US History,Business and Journalism — all from Columbia University. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife and two children.