Robbins (Liberation Road, 2005, etc.) again concocts an ingenious suspense thriller around the momentous events of WWII. This time, a foreign assassin stalks President Roosevelt.
On New Year’s morning, 1945, two civilians patrolling the shoreline are killed on the beach of Newburyport, Mass. Secret Service agent “Dag” Nabbit appeals for help in solving the case from his former professor Mikhal Lammeck, an American historian currently training teams of men in Scotland for clandestine activities behind enemy lines. In his spare time, Lammeck ponders the fascinating question of whether history is made by people or by events. The Newburyport murders, he learns, were committed using a 12th-century knife belonging to a Middle Eastern cult that fought the Templars during the Crusades. This tells Lammeck, whose expertise includes familiarity with Marco Polo’s diaries, that the killer is probably a highly trained, cold-blooded master of open-hand combat and poisons. In fact, that’s a very good description of “Judith,” a Persian-born woman trained in American schools and now passing as an innocent New Orleans black girl looking for work in Washington, D.C. Judith executes rigorous stylized exercises in her room at night, smokes hashish and murders innocent people close to her without a trace of remorse. Lammeck tracks his target by waiting for her; he’s concluded that he’s bound to run into the assassin if he sticks close to FDR, at a low ebb of public esteem in 1945 and considered by many to be an intolerable despot. Robbins manages some tricky historical sleight-of-hand by placing Judith on the domestic staff of Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, Roosevelt’s former mistress, whom he began to see again in his last months. Who has hired her to kill the president? The answer is not straightforward in a novel unafraid to tackle some big ideas.
A solid, satisfying treat for the armchair historian.