In a mystery by former U.S. Department of Commerce official Ashby, the 1923 murder of a Civil War veteran leaves a trail of conspiracy, cover-up and corruption stretching from the Battle of Gettysburg to the halls of the Harding-era Congress and the fledgling Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI).
Someone is killing elderly Civil War veterans and BI agent Seth Armitage must discover what links the victims in order to find the killer, unaware that the investigation is being manipulated by the Bureau’s corrupt director Harry M. Daugherty (real-life Attorney General in the tainted Harding Administration) and a shadowy member of the Senate. Providing a Machiavellian counterweight to the plot is the BI’s ambitious assistant director J. Edgar Hoover. The case draws Virginia-born Armitage, haunted by his memories of World War I France, to the site of the bloody battlefield where his grandfather fought for the Confederacy. Ashby’s interweaving of the two events, and his portrayal of the Civil War as a lingering tragedy for both sides of the conflict, nicely ups the emotional stakes. The beautiful daughter of a deceased Union soldier plays a pivotal role; so do young Charles “Slim” Lindbergh, the resurging Ku Klux Klan and BI colleague Gaston Means (a convicted felon in real life). Ashby missteps in altering between his hero’s first and last names, at times in the same paragraph, and in his not entirely successful attempt to portray the complexities of post-Civil War black-and-white relationships through peripheral characters. It is no mean feat, however, that despite myriad plot devices and a prodigious volume of historical detail—military maneuvers, weaponry, early FBI forensics practices, books of the time—Ashby maintains the story’s forward momentum and clarity.
Real people, real events and the still-charged reverberations of the Civil War provide a provocative framework for a 1920s-era mystery neatly told with meticulous historical detail and enjoyable twists.