Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer (P.S.)

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer - James L. Swanson The author James L. Swanson isn't a historian but a journalist. He has been however, as he put it, "obsessed" with Abraham Lincoln since childhood and a collector of memorabilia regarding the assassination and someone who had read exhaustively on the subject even before he began formally researching this book on his assassination by John Wilkes Booth and the 12-day hunt for him. I didn't get farther than the assassination though, and the issue is one of style. Let me give you the passage that stopped me reading: The actor's black pupils flared wide, adjusting to the darkness, while also fixing on the only available light in the dim claustrophobic chamber--a faint pinpoint emanating from the peephole that somebody, probably Booth, had bored through a right-hand panel of the door to box number seven. Oh please. I've gotten sick and tired of this kind of In Cold Blood tarted up history. There is, of course, absolutely no way Swanson could know Booth's pupils "flared wide" (although I concede Swanson might be able to infer it) and certainly no way he could know on what Booth fixed his gaze. Only Booth could know, and I can't believe he imparted such details in a letter. That completely lost my suspension of disbelief in what is supposed to be a non-fiction account. Nor is Swanson the kind of stylist--a Truman Capote, a Tom Wolfe, an Erik Larson--for whom I'm willing to forgive such excesses. (And God, the melodrama!) And it's so unnecessary. After this book I turned to reading Shelby Foote's The Civil War. This also purports to be a "narrative history" and Foote's background is as a novelist, not a historian. But he never steps over the line. Foote writes in the Bibliographical Note in the back that he "employed the novelist's methods without his license... Nothing is included here, either within or outside quotation marks without the authority of documentary evidence which I consider sound." And I'm willing to take Foote's word for that, because there's nothing in the 150 pages I've read so far that makes me doubt it. And yet his book flows and has all the vividness of a novel--and truly powerful prose. Foote also said in that note that the historical record is so rich, he didn't feel any temptation to imagine details--what was difficult was what to omit. Because yes, it is possible to write good history that makes for good reading. It's a shame Swanson didn't take note how to do it from Shelby Foote.