Stephen L. Carter’s thriller rewrites history in a web spun with so much intrigue, animosity, arrogance, power-mongering, posturing and corruption it might as well take place in Washington today. His conceit is that Lincoln survived the events at the Ford Theatre only to be charged with impeachment and face a political battle for his life. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is a fascinating journey through post-Civil War Washington and the uneasy adjustment of a society absorbing freed slaves and the entry of educated blacks into all-white sanctuaries as peers. It’s a fairly rough integration.
Abigail Canner is a recent graduate of Oberlin, ambitious to pass the bar and practice law, excited about her acceptance as a clerk at the law firm handling Lincoln’s impeachment case. The morning she arrives for work she discovers that she isn’t to be a brilliant young black law clerk–just a clerk, a kind of glorified office staff with a broom and dustpan and little else to do. So she decides to read law on her own, with permission to borrow the firm’s books. And, because she is wicked intelligent, self-confident, stubborn and perceptive, she soon impresses an astonishing number of prominent Washingtonians and is invited to salons and dinner and catches the eyes of a few of the capital’s most eligible bachelors.
But this is not a romance. Abby is not looking for a boyfriend–her fiancee went missing in the war and she believes he will return. Her fellow law clerk is smitten nearly at once, despite the looming presence of his own powerfully-connected fiancee. And then one of the law partners managing the president’s case is brutally murdered along with a young black woman and Abby suspects the impeachment proceedings are the motive.
Secrets abound, are whispered to eager ears, hidden from sight, rumored but unproven. There is a mysterious missing letter and a break-in at the law firm’s offices. Abby comes across several break-ins in the course of this novel and nearly doesn’t survive one of them. She gathers evidence and puzzles over the meaning of clues and coincidences–great thriller stuff. I enjoyed an historical perspective on the physical layout of a city I lived in for a number of years when I worked in the Senate. And I liked the story–good one. Credible and well-done.
I did wonder at Abby’s surprisingly easy acceptance into the halls of power and the social scene–I wouldn’t have expected Washington to be that open. Rather, her encounters with prejudice were more in the nature of an annoyance than a crippling reality. And it is crazy-making to keep track of the possible conspirators and which appointee has designs on which political office and what capitalist controls which revenue stream or industry with an agenda. But those are minor quibbles.
Good book–half-blind from staying up to finish it. But a very satisfying story with a twist or two–or three at the end that gets history back on track. Now maybe I’ll check out “Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” to see what further imaginative purpose can be made of an historic icon. “Fifty Shades of Abe” maybe. Or maybe not.
The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln Stephen L. Carter | Alfred A. Knopf 2012