A true-life Day of the Jackal, set a century earlier and involving as many tangled subplots.
Queen Victoria, writes British journalist Campbell (The Maharaja’s Box, 2002), was no stranger to assassination attempts. “As a function perhaps of the length of her reign (1837–1901) rather than of her attraction for deranged assailants,” he writes, “Queen Victoria was the most shot-at sovereign in British history.” Seven attacks were made by pistol. Had the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish independence movement largely organized and staffed by Irish American soldiers after the Civil War, had its way, bombs would have felled the monarch; the Brotherhood and like-minded terrorist cells claimed credit for many explosive attacks on agents of the Crown, including spectacular assaults on Scotland Yard and Victoria Station. The plan to do Vicky in went awry for many reasons, but it was nursed along by the oddest of cabals, numbering agents from the British government who encouraged, funded, and otherwise aided the would-be assassins in an effort to discredit the rising movement for an independent Irish republic. Involving Foreign Office spymasters, dashing adventurers such as the shadowy Francis Millen (late of the Mexican navy, and titular head of what Fleet Street tabloids called “the Jubilee dynamite gang”), the eminent but star-crossed Irish politician Charles Parnell, dozens of minor characters, and even a brief sighting of Jack the Ripper, Campbell’s tale meanders from one improbable scenario to another, neatly illustrating the strange-bedfellows theory of politics and the absolute corruptibility of professional powermongers. By the end, readers will be scratching their heads at the incompetence, egotism, and brutality of just about everyone who figured in the assassination attempt of 1887—but also wondering why it didn’t succeed.
Messy, complex, and thoroughly intriguing: Campbell spins it with gusto.