I own a copy of John Brown’s Body, the long poem on the Civil War by Stephen Vincent Benét, but I recently bought a new one. Actually, it’s an old one, because I found it at a used-book store. It’s just new to me. I read the poem last fall, in preparation for an article, and wanted this particular edition because it has an introduction by Bruce Catton, who is probably my favorite historian. Catton wrote:
Benét says he “tried to cleave to historical fact where such fact was ascertainable.” But he found, as everyone does, that some of the facts are missing altogether and that others lie on the page of history indecipherable, conveying a message that is obscured by the shadows of our imperfect knowledge, a message that every man must read for himself. So in the end he examines the Civil War as a poet, not as an historian, and it is as poetry and not as history that his book must be judged.
This comes close to describing my aims in The First Assassin. As a historical thriller, the book is hardly poetry. Yet it takes advantage of silences in the historical record. I tried to write into the gaps, filling them with a fantastic plot that otherwise conforms to the known facts of history. Although I took a few calculated liberties, I strived to make The First Assassin accurate in its fundamentals. To the best of my knowledge, for example, I always have Lincoln the character located where Lincoln the real person was on certain days. When I describe his office in the White House and what the view from his window looked like, the accounts are based on contemporary sources.
I don’t want my book judged as history. I want it judged as fiction. At the same time, I would like readers to come away with the feeling that the events it describes could have happened.