Historian/novelist Goldstone (Unpunished Murder: Massacre at Colfax and the Quest for Justice, 2018, etc.) finds a surprising conspiracy beneath an unlikely presidential assassination.
“I done my duty,” announces anarchist Leon Czolgosz after shooting William McKinley twice in a reception line in Buffalo, New York. At first his satisfaction seems premature, since the president recovers sufficiently after the bullets are removed to eat solid food and ask for a cigar. Even before he dies eight days later, however, the game is afoot for Secret Service agents Walter George and his boss, Harry Swayne. Pulled away from their normal caseload of counterfeiting, the pair ask why the suspiciously bandaged Czolgosz was able to get so close to the president, why none of McKinley’s bodyguards protected him, and who the two men were who visited both Czolgosz and librarian Esther Kolodkin, who sympathized with his cause, in the weeks leading up to the assassination. Some of these questions have much better answers than others, and the best indications that Walter and Harry are on the right track are that the people they’re looking for start to turn up dead and the powers that be start to question their activities. Realizing they can’t completely trust either new Secret Service chief John E. Wilkie or incoming President Theodore Roosevelt, whom the evidence increasingly implicates in a plot to kill his predecessor, the sleuths watch their steps with increasing apprehension as they interview a sweeping range of interested parties from Czolgosz’s home in Cleveland to Chicago, where the spider’s web seems to have its center, before confronting the head of a conspiracy as audacious and unexpected as it is logical.
Goldstone deftly mixes fact and fiction to bring the turn of the century alive as his detecting pair unearth a breathtaking, satisfying conspiracy that may pique but won’t outrage serious students of the period.