Monday, February 05, 2007

Book Review: "Manhunt"

Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, by James Swanson (Morrow, 2006) is a fascinating and well-written account of the immediate lead-up and aftermath of Lincoln's assassination. Unlike many books on the subject, Lincoln does not get center stage here: John Wilkes Booth does (just, I suspect, as the famous actor would have hoped). Swanson does quite a nice job of both setting the stage for the shooting of Lincoln (and the near-murder of William Seward) and then the conspirators' escape from Washington. Others have as well. What Swanson does more ably than I've read in a long time is describe Booth's escape and the events of the twelve days following the assassination.

Deftly alternating perspectives between Booth and his fleeing co-conspirators to the "manhunters" who are hot on their tails, Swanson brings the race to life. He also demonstates just how much evidence existed against Dr. Samuel Mudd, whose descendants have worked relentlessly to clear his name but who clearly knew who Booth was and understood what he was doing by assisting the escape.

While the book falls into some speculative traps at certain points (how can we know just what Booth and Herold spoke to each other during their five days in a Maryland pine thicket as they waited to cross into Virginia, for example), and also contained a few unwelcome editorial interjections, its flaws are few compared to the great research that Swanson brings to bear here. My only major problem with the text was its lack of citations - sure, I believe Swanson that he got all his direct conversational quotes from primary accounts ... but it sure would be nice to know what's coming from where. We don't get that, and it's unfortunate.

Nonetheless, this was an attention-holding book, and I think gets at the anxiety and fear and real importance of those twelve days in America's history.

1 comment:

Irene said...

Great summary. I read the book as well and loved it! However, I also agree that it is near impossible for anyone to know the exact conversations between Booth and Herold.