The Lincoln Letter opens with a glimpse of a letter written by Abraham Lincoln on the last day of his life. The letter alludes to a lost diary belonging to Lincoln and sets the stage for the historical suspense that William Martin writes better than anyone, a novel winding around the irresistible theme of a treasure hunt—this time in Washington, D.C.—and complete with hidden compartments, shootouts, and bodies floating in the Potomac.
Martin sets the action in two time periods, one during the Lincoln presidency and the other in the present day, in which he brings back the sleuthing team of Peter Fallon and Evangeline Carrington. In Lincoln’s time, we follow the actions of Halsey Hutchinson, a fictional officer in the War Department’s telegraph office. Halsey has unique access to President Lincoln and has found himself in the predicament of having lost the president’s diary, one which contains Lincoln’s intimate thoughts on the institution of slavery. In the wrong hands, the diary’s contents could be used for many a political contrivance, potentially altering the course of the war and the path to freeing the slaves. It is as essential that Halsey finds the diary in the past as it is that Peter Fallon finds it in the future—in both cases to keep it out of the hands of political forces that would manipulate Lincoln’s words for their own agendas.
The richness of Martin’s historical research shines on every page, first of all within a divine sense of place, his narrative defining a historical geography, a skill that he’s honed to perfection in each of his novels. The map of Washington in 1862 at the beginning of the The Lincoln Letter is helpful, but it’s the vivid, lively descriptions that have the reader walking the muddy streets and smelling the stagnant canal running north of what we today call The Mall. Martin offers us the imagery of the unfinished ‘ribs of the Capitol dome’, the Washington Monument under construction ‘shimmering in the sunlight like a shard of reality in an unfinished dream’, and Washington in June, with a ‘heat that felt like clear, sticky syrup poured into every corner and every crevice of the city’.
We get to know Halsey Hutchinson by way of Martin’s insightful, yet subtle details, like how Halsey had been to Pompeii, comparing Vesuvius erupting to what it felt like in the midst of rebel fire. It makes us know better a man living in the 1850s that had traveled as far as southern Italy, who had walked among the ancient ruins of Pompeii much as we do today, taking us inside the mind of an American who had found himself fighting in the Civil War 150 years ago.
Martin doesn’t shy away from breathing life into well-known nonfictional characters, in particular John Wilkes Booth and of course Lincoln himself. Martin doesn’t just give us a physical description of Booth, but shows us how he behaves as an actor and human being: ‘turning, pushing through the crowd, in and out of the torchlight, his face flashing an actor’s angry scowl’. Martin plunges into Lincoln’s interior ponderances over slavery and race, bringing us closer to Lincoln as a living, breathing character than ever before in popular culture. He shows Lincoln’s agonies over what direction to take in the Civil War, so very relatable to the horrendous decisions facing any president. We see a president plagued with criticism and questioned on the constitutionality of his every move. We live alongside Lincoln’s personal and physical deconstruction during the war-ravaged years of his truncated presidency and witness his humility.
A story about Lincoln would be incomplete without ominous foreshadowing of the inevitable, of the event which we optimistically, naïvely hope will not happen. Martin flawlessly creates this foreboding with descriptions like ‘the gaslights around the White House glowed like footlights in a theater’, but while maintaining stunning authenticity, he treats the subject (and scene) of Lincoln’s assassination with gut-wrenching poignancy that is equaled only by the description of being in the Twin Towers on 9/11 in his New York novel City of Dreams.
We get the idea that William Martin has actually lived in the time period of the Civil War. In his talks promoting The Lincoln Letter, Martin recounts how he does his research by examining old photographs, and it’s a delicious pleasure to see his protagonist Peter Fallon and other characters doing the same. Through their points of view we discover what Martin discovered when he pored over the same photos and engravings of the past. Martin has also shared that he’ll go to the library (or these days, online) and read an entire year of newspapers for the time period in question, even—and especially—the advertisements. Likewise Peter Fallon tells another character in the book, ‘You read everything, even the advertisements. They tell you how people lived in the details. And we look for God in the details.’ Martin pulls a life, an intrigue out of those details, and the result of his excitement for documents of the past is that we feel as if we are there, too. His characters can tell us ‘what a bowl of she-crab soup cost at the Gosling Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue’. They can tell us ‘that Laura Keene is playing all week at Ford’s Theatre, closing on Saturday night before Easter’. And we get to witness the see-and-be-seen action, gatherings, and plotting in full public display at the political hot spots of the Willard and the National Hotels in Civil War Washington.
Martin cleverly intertwines Civil War reenactors into his intrigue, the reenactments the perfect stage upon which to juxtapose and link events occurring in the timeline of the past and in the present-day timeline. We get into the psyche of the reenactors and what makes them tick. We see them reenacting the treatment of battle wounds in a hospital, and in a following chapter, experience from the point of view of a soldier what it was like to recover from a wound with only opium pills and needles of morphine to kill the pain, shedding fascinating light on the types of wounds that would be caused by Civil War-era ammunition as well as the types of physical therapy in practice 150 years ago.
Finally, The Lincoln Letter doesn’t pull punches with hard language on slavery, yet Martin treats the subject with respect as when one of his characters asks, ‘What godly nation would do such a thing?’ The Lincoln Letter transports the reader back to a fascinating, albeit difficult period in American history, and William Martin, even while providing a rich history lesson, delivers an exciting yarn that will give his readers much to think about long after they have turned the final page.