Review: The Judges of the Secret Court, by David Stacton

The Judges of
the Secret Court
A Novel About
John Wilkes Booth
by David Stacton
272 pages
NYRB Classics
June 7, 2011
Perhaps one of the most interesting books I'll read this summer, The Judges of the Secret Court is a novel of that very special brand that manages to coat history* with a velvety smooth layer of lacquered foundation-like fiction, the kind that blends away the unwanted irregularities and abnormalities, and makes the story glow. It's the story of the persons involved (by conspiracy or by blood) in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. At the root though, it is about the Booth family madness and its manifestation in John Wilkes Booth.

Rather than touting Lincoln's better qualities, Stacton casts him in a negative light, reflecting Wilkes' narcissistic visions and perplexing patriotism. The world spins on an axis with Wilkes at one pole and Secretary of War Stanton at the other, both revolving in ever-maddening circles, throwing the spin out of control.

After Wilkes is dead, though, the story loses some of its sheen. Older brother Edwin Booth and one of Wilkes' co-conspirators, Mrs. Surratt, move into the foreground (they're mentioned very early-on in the book, but they don't really hit their groove until this point), but it seems all Stacton has for them is sympathy.

Meanwhile, the misbegotten co-conspirators' trial moves on, puppeteered by Secretary Stanton, leading up to and ending with the executioner's block. Stanton's hypertension is less interesting than Wilkes' story (and even less interesting than Wilkes' gangrene), but Stacton still treats it as a symptom of the madness.

The fusing of factual detail and literary license is all but seamless. Stacton's work is not only well-researched, but also enjoys a good amount of poignant and sophisticated irony, the kind that keeps the pages turning. The constant references to Shakespeare add a richness to the text as both allusion and, one could argue, delusion. In the end, Edwin Booth is left to suffer through life, a portrait of Johnny haunting him, judging him, waiting. It's a great literary and psychological study of the way the roles in which we cast ourselves can often bleed into reality, often confounding the dividing line between true and false, right and wrong, president and tyrant.                

*It would make for a great addition to the high school English or American History curriculum, but for one thing - that it has almost as many references to blacks as "niggers" as Twain's Huckleberry Finn; while one could argue (as with the latter) the circumstances of time and place, this book was written 77 years later, and many censors don't take kindly to that kind of retrospective use of the word. And anyway, the American education system is flawed and doesn't do much.


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