Nineteenth-century federal agents hunt for a vicious murderer in the midst of the Civil War in MacKinnon’s (Song for a Shadow, 1991, etc.) historical novel.
In 1864, Maj. Nathaniel Truly of the National Detective Police and Capt. Bart Forbes of the Bureau of Military Information are trying to stop newspaper editor/owner Gideon Van Gilder, a Confederate sympathizer, from fleeing the Union. But when they intercept Van Gilder’s coach, they find the man dead inside, his body mutilated. They link an associate of his to U.S. Rep. Ezra Underhill of Maryland, but a letter written by Van Gilder is most illuminating—vaguely suggesting that he and other men, including Underhill and a detective, are being blackmailed. After another man is murdered, Truly and Forbes search for the blackmailer in order to prevent another killing. The author layers the story with extensive historical background, including such notable events as Lt. Gen. Jubal Early leading Rebel cavalry toward Washington, D.C. The perspective shifts from the investigation to the Confederate army’s preparations and march, but the murder mystery offers the more invigorating story, featuring moments of dark humor: Forbes finds a photograph of a recent murder victim and states bluntly and with no sign of mockery, “Here’s how he looked with his face on.” The military story gradually takes over, but the investigation is never completely sidelined and remains intriguing until the end. Significant secondary characters include Sapphira, a young black woman whom Truly bought at a slave auction, freed and raised as his own daughter; and real-life historical figures such as Gen. Robert E. Lee, who discusses the attempted Capitol seizure with fellow Confederate William Norris. MacKinnon keeps the plot moving at a steady tempo with an agent going undercover, an abduction and even more murders. Readers should brace themselves for a hefty read, however, as the book clocks in at nearly 800 pages.
An epic novel in which the historical and thriller elements enrich each other.