This third outing for the storied Culper Ring, sworn to protect the U.S. presidency, shows them doing what they do most: sniffing out conspiracies, falling for deceptions, and perpetuating that grandest of all American political institutions, the clueless double take.
Orson Wallace is still president, Beecher White still toils in the National Archives, his mentor Aristotle “Tot” Westman still languishes in the hospital after getting shot in the head. But things have changed for Nico Hadrian, who failed in his attempt 10 years ago to assassinate the president and instead killed the first lady, who continues to talk to him after all these years. Nico recently escaped his padded cell at St. Elizabeth’s mental institution, just in time to be on the loose when current first lady Shona Wallace turns up a severed human arm in a White House garden. After its opposite number turns up in quite a different location, the two arms are identified as those of Kingston Young, who killed himself two weeks ago. Or is Young really alive and masquerading as the late Tanner Pope’s loose-cannon grandson, Ezra, a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a guild of assassins who trace their membership back to John Wilkes Booth? Meltzer attacks the web of conspiracies with an unbridled barrage of flashbacks, switching from past-tense to present-tense verbs, from first-person to third-person narratives, until you’re as ready as poor Col. Doggett, whom Nico slowly tortures, to cry uncle and confess to all the terrible things you’ve done, just like everyone else in the Culper Ring, the Knights of the Golden Circle, and the Plankholders, for whom Doggett recruited Nico so long ago.
Unlike the previous installment (The Fifth Assassin, 2013), this one doesn’t provide much in the way of exposition but instead throws you unceremoniously into the deep end. Fans will survive, but unwary newcomers had better watch their backs.