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Book Corner November 2011


The Judges of the Secret Court

by David Stacton
New York:  New York Review of Books Publication (Stacton 1961/2011).


Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl            

This book is from the New York Review of Books publications and is a reprint of a work by an author whose dates are 1923-1968.  David Stacton has done an uncommonly eerie re-telling of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln and the people who were part of that.  Stacton is little known, but this work goes far to prompt readers to seek out his other works.
The introduction to the book states that this is:  “…almost a documentary novel:  the events, down to the smallest, are all in the historical accounts, and Stacton hardly adds to them.  He examines them, surrounds them in thought, tries to break into them in imagination.” (xi). Indeed, the author succeeds well in doing just that.   He has managed to create a significant sense of America in the 1860s with detailed pictures of the weather, environment, and activities of the characters. This is ‘Americana’ novelistic writing at its best.

The work traces Booth on the run as well as his probable inner life.  One learns easily to dislike Booth as he reflects on his stage career, the perfect vocation for a true narcissist.  As part of his escape, Booth is aided by a one Dr. Mudd.  After he is treated, the author notes:  “Upstairs Booth fell asleep.  Like Richard [Shakespeare’s], his best part, he could add colours to the chameleon.  He was loyal only to himself.  He gave no thought to the repercussions of what he had done.  And besides, his bed was so soft.” ( 81).

Other characters, including those accused of harboring and aiding Booth are also part of this work.  Stacton portrays them well in terms of their mixed motives, fears and feelings.  Booth is captured and killed midway throughout his work, but Stacton continues with the capture, trial and hangings of some of the abetting principals.

This is a fine-tuned, elegant work and Stacton has captured the muddy, tragic days of that episode of American history when the nation faced its springtime horrors of Lincoln’s death and the questions of what would happen next.