The Raven

The Raven

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

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The First Assassin

By John J. Miller

The year is 1861 with the country on the brink of the Civil War. The United States has just elected Lincoln the 16th President of the United States. Having already unknowingly dodged one assassination attempt, the President’s life is constantly in danger.

Colonel Charles P. Rook is enlisted to organize Washington D. C.’s security to protect the President-elect. It is a difficult task. Lincoln’s election leads to the secession of South Carolina from the Union and sparks a wave of violence across the nation. As death threats and rumors of conspiracy began to seep into the capital, Rook finds himself alone in his investigations. His superior officer, General Winfield Scott, insists an assassination is simply not possible.

After the Baltimore Plot (Chapter One) Lincoln actually did dodge a bullet by arriving in Washington the night before his train schedule. Since he was was accused of cowardice for having gone along with this ruse, Lincoln decides to conduct an open presidency, permitting everybody to enter the White House, and making himself available to minor petitioners of all kinds. The result is a security nightmare for Colonel Rook. Because of the President's distaste of an obvious armed presence, Rook puts several of his men into plain clothes, investigating threats from outside the White House by means of covert surveillance and good detective work. In doing so, he incurs the wrath of his superior officer, General Winfield Scott, who believes that a soldier's job is fighting battles rather than skulking around after private citizens -- especially when one of the citizens in question is a noted Washington hostess, Violet Grenier, a sympathizer for the South, whose salons are frequented by powerful men of all persuasions, despite her known secessionist views. But, as always in Washington, knowledge is power, and Rook is determined to make up in knowledge what he lacks in manpower.

Given his name, Colonel Rook by the author, suggests to me the action of the novel moving along the lines of a chess game--between the characters who represent the North and South. Lincoln is the Black King since he takes the side of the slaves and Colonel Rook is his black Rook, the piece that protects and fights for him. On the Black side there are two slaves, Lucius and Big Joe who are the Black Knights who hop over the heads of their white master's pieces and sacrifice their lives to get vital information to President Lincoln. They use Portia, the granddaughter of Lucius, as the pawn who delivers the information to the Black King and then wins her freedom when she reaches the President's row on the chessboard.

On the White side is Langston Bennett the White King, who always makes the first move, and his Queen, Violet Grenier, who conspires to help the assassin Langston has hired, known only as "Mazorca," a sinister hit man from Argentina, to kill President Lincoln. When Mazorca dons the preacher's black coat, after he slashes his throat and throws his bible into the waste canal (so he can use his own homemade gun bible) he becomes the avenging White Bishop for the White King.

After the game is over with the death of Mazorca, Violet Grenier suggests to Langston Bennett, in the Epilogue, that a second game could be in the works since "the war is young."

If Mr. Miller does write a sequel to this fascinating historical novel, I'm sure there will be lots of fans, including myself, who will like to have a ring-side seat to do their kibbitzing.
 Dr. Jordan Richman
The Coronado Review of American Literature