A thirst for fame: John Wilkes Booth

Ever heard of the author David Stacton? I hadn’t, until I received in the mail my NYRB Book Club selection for May, The Judges of the Secret Court, a historical novel about John Wilkes Booth. The story begins the day of President Lincoln’s assassination, Good Friday 1865, with Edwin Booth experiencing disturbing premonitions about his brother John Wilkes. It moves swiftly through the dramatic historical events of Lincoln’s death; John Wilkes Booth’s desperate flight to the South, capture and death; and the trial of Booth’s associates that was a mockery of justice.

Stacton (1923 – 1968) was critically acclaimed for his historical novels during his writing life, more so in Europe than the United States, where his books didn’t resonate with the reading public. Even so, the editors of TIME magazine included Stacton in a list of impressive novelists during the early 1960s, alongside Joseph Heller, John Updike, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Ralph Ellison.

Stacton these many years later seems out-of-place among those laudable literary names, but he is indeed worthy of being singled out for his historical novels, if his fictional expression of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the events that followed represents all his work. The Judges of the Secret Court is surprisingly addictive with its post-Civil War atmosphere and politics deftly conveyed without textbook tedium, as well as the fast-paced drama of Booth’s evasion of justice and the intriguing psychology of the actor’s delusional self-perception.

Violating the “show don’t tell” writing principle, Stacton’s narrative style tells the story in a very certain, confident and refreshing voice. He adheres to the factual events of Lincoln’s assassination, the historical figures and what follows, instead of embellishing the story with fictional characters and scenes. (The New York Times’ review of The Judges of the Secret Court, August 13, 1961, claimed the story “tells more about the quixotic assassin, probably more accurately, than any historian’s biography could…”) Also – and herein lies the imaginative spark for this great read — Stacton employs the God-like omniscient perspective, and so he enters the interior, private thoughts of the event’s participants, including President Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, let alone John Wilkes Booth and his friends.

Even those well-read on the topic of Lincoln’s assassination will find this 1961 novel a fascinating account of this moment in American history and the days that followed. Stacton leaves us not only with a renewed understanding of what happened but also a well-crafted exposition on the soul of an actor thirsting for fame.