Smolens (Fire Point, 2004, etc.) takes us inside the mind of the man who shot President McKinley.
Buffalo police captain Lloyd Savin recruits Pinkerton detective Jake Norris in August 1901 to investigate the murder of a young prostitute named Clementine, whose body was found floating in the Erie Canal. Norris has come from Washington to look into anarchist threats against McKinley, scheduled to appear in Buffalo next month. Specifically, Norris is tracking the movements of a young firebrand named Leon Czolgosz, who has been speaking in public about workers’ rights and changing history; reportedly, Czolgosz has said it’s a citizen’s duty to kill the president. Norris correctly deduces that Big Maud’s house, where Clementine worked, is connected to Czolgosz. When the focus shifts to the assassin-to-be, the reader gets a far more human portrait than history has commonly provided. Born in Cleveland, where his parents owned a small grocery store, Czolgosz is part of a vibrant populist movement seen by some as a threat to the nation. He is also obsessed with meeting his idol, Emma Goldman. A third major narrative strand concerns Moses Hyde, Czolgosz’s confidant and Norris’ informant. A restless soul brimming with vague empathy for the common man, Hyde has understandably complex feelings about his situation, staying in Buffalo mostly because of his crush on a majestic Russian prostitute at Big Maud’s. The assassination occurs before the novel’s midpoint, with the narrative moving slowly through its aftermath. The McKinleys, Theodore Roosevelt and other characters both real and imagined all hold center stage for a time; readers are drawn into their various stories by carefully crafted prose whose quiet authority is bolstered by a firm grasp of period detail.
A character-driven historical novel that transcends genre and provides a fascinating perspective on the current spate of populist discontent with Washington.