The assassination of the British prime minister on the eve of the War of 1812 spirals gradually into a tale of pernicious political intrigue.
In this account of Spencer Perceval’s murder in the House of Commons on May 11, 1812, by the seemingly lone gunman John Bellingham, Linklater (An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson, 2009, etc.) bides his time adding key details that amplify the story from one man’s private injury to a nation’s sense of economic outrage. Bellingham started out as a Liverpool trader whose work lured him to Russia in 1804 to import a cargo of timber and iron; however, a snafu resulted in his arrest on debt charges, the result of commercial blackmail by a former partner. Repeated demands to British officials for justice came to naught, and over the next seven years the injury rankled at Bellingham, overtaking all aspects of his life. As the tale widens, Perceval is portrayed as an ambitious Evangelical, nobly born but penniless until marrying well and becoming a driven barrister. Embracing William Wilberforce’s attempts to ban the slave trade, Perceval became prime minister in 1809. His determination to choke the illegal slave trade was essentially destroying international commerce, especially for Liverpool merchants and those who traded with them—namely, the American slavers. The plot thickens as Linklater follows the money: Who was financing the bankrupt Bellingham while he left his wife back in Liverpool supporting the family at her dressmaking business and went to London to plot and carry out the shooting of Perceval? The author creates a challenging mystery requiring some acquaintance with the historical period.
Linklater cloaks a valuable history lesson within a dark, dramatic story.