Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cannonball Read #5: Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson

As I have mentioned before, I have always had a certain fascination with the events surrounding the Lincoln assassination. As a child, I read anything I could get my hands on, and forced my parents to take me to Ford's Theater and the Petersen house (aka The House Where Lincoln Died). Obviously, this meant I came to James L. Swanson's Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer with more information than the average reader. Unfortunately, I think this effected how much I enjoyed the book.

The book details the events preceding and following the Lincoln assassination (as well as the attempts on the lives of the Secretary of State and Vice President) and the nationwide hunt for the killer and his accomplices.

There were some parts of the historical record that I didn't know--for example the time between John Wilkes Booth's flight from Washington and his death in the Garrett barn in Virginia had not been fully explored in previous books I'd read, nor had I previously read anything about the efforts the government had made to capture the perpetrators--but a great deal of the book covered things that were common knowledge to me. However, there was enough new information to keep me interested all the way through. Swanson has done his research into all the people and events, so there are a lot of fascinating details. (There is an extensive bibliography/footnote section in the back which is great for those who might wish to do more research on their own).

My main problem with this book was the way it was written. It's done in third person, and although there are interjections in the author's voice, they aren't consistent. It's kind of an uncomfortable compromise between the style of The Killer Angels and Ghosts of Titanic. The Killer Angels is written as a multiple-first person narrative based on (but not directly referencing) original documents, while Ghosts of Titanic is a first-person narrative which directly references original documents and research. Manhunt is written in third-person, with inconsistent instances of direct-research and first-person authorial interjections. Swanson expresses personal opinions on certain events, but in other places merely relates events. He sometimes but not usually notes in the text where his information comes from, but other parts of the narrative are admitted conjecture. For me, this brings to mind high school research projects which were returned with the notes "I know YOUR opinion, but where are your FACTS? Where did you get them? HOW DO YOU KNOW THIS?" Is this book historical fiction or a well-documented historical timeline? Or is it both?

I would say that the book is definitely full of information that someone who is already interested in the subject would enjoy. However, as far as a good read, I'm not sure I'd recommend it.

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