Sunday, February 26, 2017

Was it Illness or Murder?

This past Monday we celebrated President’s Day in the U.S. and it’s the perfect time to tell you about the historical fiction surrounding the tragic death of Willie Lincoln in THE MURDER OF WILLIE LINCOLN by Burt Solomon, an award-winning political journalist and contributing editor for The Atlantic and National Journal.

Burt puts a speculative and mysterious twist on history in this gripping new novel about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son. Doris Kearns Goodwin praises the mystery, saying “…Solomon offers a deeply imagined and entirely plausible account of the Lincoln White House at its saddest…You won’t guess whodunit until the final, suspenseful page.”

          Washington City, 1862:  The United States lies in tatters, and there seems no end to the war. Abraham Lincoln, the legitimate President of the United States, is using all his will to keep his beloved land together.  But Lincoln’s will and soul are tested when tragedy strikes the White House as Willie Lincoln, the love and shining light in the president’s heart, is taken by typhoid fever.
But was this really the cause of his death?  A message arrives, suggesting otherwise. Lincoln asks John Hay, his trusted aide—and almost a son—to investigate Willie’s death.  Some see Hay as a gadfly—adventurous, incisive, lusty, reflective, skeptical, and even cynical—but he loves the president and so seeks the truth behind the boy’s death. 
And so, as we follow Hay in his investigation, we are shown the loftiest and lowest corners of Washington City, from the president’s office and the gentleman’s dining room at Willard’s Hotel to the alley hovels, wartime hospitals, and the dome-less Capitol’s vermin-infested subbasement. We see the unfamiliar sides of a grief-stricken president, his hellcat of a wife, and their two surviving and suffering sons, and Hay matches wits with such luminaries as General McClellan, William Seward, and the indomitable detective Allan Pinkerton.
What Hay discovers has the potential of not only destroying Lincoln, but a nation.

◊ by Burt Solomon
◊ Forge Books
◊ February 21, 2017
◊ ISBN 978-0-7653-8583-3; $25.99

Please join me in welcoming Burt to Thoughts in Progress to talk about his new release. Welcome, Burt.

          I was sitting at my computer one morning, staring at the screen, when an idea popped into my head: a murder mystery in the Lincoln White House (or, Executive Mansion, as I was soon to learn). I love murder mysteries. I love Lincoln. How fun to read! So I’d better write it.
          Immediately, a second thought struck: John Hay as the detective. I didn’t even know I knew who he was. But he turned out to be a very cool guy, a 23-year-old assistant private secretary to Lincoln who lived upstairs in the White House, a witty and irreverent lawyer and poet (and boxer, in my story) who was almost like another son to Lincoln.
          I’m basically a nonfiction guy, a journalist by trade, and the author of three nonfiction histories. So I decided to keep the story line as close to nonfiction as I could. I read about Lincoln’s presidency in order to find a real death I could turn into a murder—and I did.
Willie Lincoln, the president’s 11-year-old—and probably favorite—son, died on February 20, 1862, from what his doctors thought was typhoid fever. I’ve turned his death into a poisoning. I’ve left almost everything else the same—the characters, the events of the day, even the hour-by-hour weather in Washington City (courtesy of the National Weather Service, your tax dollars at work). My favorite three pages in the book may be the Afterword, in which I explain what is factual and what is not.      
I spent days at the National Library of Medicine to find a medicine-slash-poison (all medicines are poisons if taken in excess) common at the time that mimicked the symptoms of typhoid fever in all but one respect. I also combed through old medical journals to find the embalming method that Willie’s embalmer probably used, and to find tests for possible poisons that were known at the time.
          The research for this book wasn’t too different than for nonfiction. In each case, I tried very hard to bring to life the time and place I’m writing about. The trick is an accretion of details, often more vivid than I could invent. I plowed through newspapers, magazines, memoirs, diaries, manuscript collections, archives, and books about Washington in the Civil War. I learned about the hogs and geese in Washington’s gutters, the organ grinders and prostitutes at work on opposite sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the canal that became an open sewer (and later Constitution Avenue) stinking like “the ghosts of 10,000 dead cats,” by John Hay’s nonfictional estimation.
          In many cases, research drove the plot line. I learned, for instance, that the longtime White House gardener, John Watt, had learned to pad his invoices and taught the skill to Mary Lincoln, who wanted to spend much more money on making the Executive Mansion (and herself) beautiful than Congress was willing to appropriate. When she happened to mention her transgressions in three letters to Watt, he blackmailed the Lincolns for $20,000, an enormous amount, eventually settling for $1,500 and a military commission. I’ve used this in plotting the book.
          The circumstances of the onset of Willie’s illness, a congressional report on secret secessionists all over the government, the role of Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress in arranging nurses for Willie and his brother Tad, the exhumation (in actuality, twice) of Willie’s corpse, the struggle between heroic and homeopathic medicine—these were all facts I used in plotting the story.
          For the characters familiar to history, I tried to keep them as close as I could to what’s known. This gave me plenty of material. Elizabeth Keckly, to cite one extraordinary character, was a former slave who became Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress and perhaps her only friend. I’ve incorporated a true mystery about her real father into the plot line, although I’ve altered the solution for the sake of my story.
          Never having written a murder mystery before, I can’t say if this trouble was the norm, but I found that the hardest part of the plotting was figuring out the middle. The first few steps in the detection seemed pretty evident (even if they proved useless in figuring out the crime) and so did the final few steps, once I’d decided whodunit. The real difficulty was linking up the beginning to the end, and in a step-by-step way that always seemed plausible. Clues can’t just fly in over the transom—there has to be a good reason why they turn up.
In a murder mystery, structure is everything. For one thing, to play fair with the reader, clues to the solution must be placed in plain yet obscured sight. The detective can’t figure things out too quickly and must always be making a bit of progress, even if it’s into a cul-de-sac. I sometimes felt like I was dealing with a set of simultaneous equations (from the days of algebra) in which multiple problems demanded a solution at once.
          I found fiction harder than nonfiction. My favorite quote these days comes from Mark Twain (natch!), who said that fiction is harder than nonfiction because it has to make sense. Everything has to go right in a novel—the characterizations, the relationships, the dialogue, as well as the plot—or I figure the reader will quickly lose patience. I would.

Burt, thanks for joining us today and sharing this fascinating look at how your story came to be. It’s always interesting where ideas come from.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Burt, here’s a bit of background on him.

Author Burt Solomon
BURT SOLOMON is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and National Journal, where he covered the White House and many other aspects of Washington life during the first Bush presidency and President Bill Clinton’s first term.

Burt has written articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe, and has appeared on NPR, CBS’s “Nightwatch,” as well as on C-SPAN. In 1991, Burt won the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency. He is also the author of the acclaimed Where They Ain't, a history of baseball in the 1890s.

Burt, his wife, and their two children live inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway.

Thanks so much for stopping by today. Do you enjoy stories that are intertwined in history?


  1. Hi Mason and Burt ... the book sounds a delightful interlude with lots of history, together with a storyline woven to bring to life your idea. Congratulations ... and I'm sure I'd enjoy reading it sometime! I'll add it to my TBR list as I need to know more about American history ... cheers to you both - Hilary

  2. Interesting twist on reality. I would be curious to read the afterward to see what was real or not. I'm sure most people don't guess correctly.

  3. I really like the idea of writing what you'd want to read. And it is interesting to speculate on historical events. Wishing you much success, and thanks, both, for sharing.

  4. Yes I like stories with historical background. This sounds like a great idea - I'll add it to my list.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.