History buffs who avoid the heavy handed history tomes might want to check out the best seller Killing Lincoln.

The book reads like a best seller (which it is) of the modern real crime stories. In other words, if you have a PhD in history, go elsewhere. If you like an easy read which will teach you something about crime fighting in the 19th century, this is the book for you.

The hero (or anti hero) in the book is John Wilkes Booth. We learn lots of trivia about him, (e.g. both Wilkes and Lincoln’s oldest son dated the same woman) but no deep psychological analysis of why he went overboard in political extremism. We also learn about the various people caught up in the conspiracy, from the chronic drunkard who never went through with the killing, to the brain damaged sociopath who tried to kill Secretary Seward’s entire family.

The hunt for the killers is told in some detail, including the shocking fact that many soldiers were drowned trying to find their hideout in a Maryland swamp, and the name of the smuggler who got them over the river into Virginia.

As a whole, the book reads as a crime story: the details are there, but there is no depth.

Why did Booth love the South? Were those eventually convicted guilty or not? The outlines of the stories are there, but no in depth speculation of the motives.

In other words, the approach is that of a newman, who just tells the facts.

What is lacking is the depth of a true historian.

And despite the fact that one of the co authors is a newsman known for his strong opinions, you won’t find the story being retold to shine the light on more recent political controversies.

This is in contrast to Robert Redford’s recent film “The Conspirator”, which tells the story of the landlady who may or may not have been involved in the plot, but who chose silence to save her son’s life.

Similarly, the story of how Doctor Mudd was framed (and later pardoned) for treating Booth’s broken leg is quickly related (his story too was told in the classic 1936 film The Prisoner of Shark Island).

So place the book into the “a good book to read on the plane” type of story telling. It is easy to read and might even inspire you to go more deeply into the subject.

I give it a 4 out of five for ordinary readers.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines.

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