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The Judges of the Secret Court

by David Stacton

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: American Triptych (2)

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1613169,565 (3.93)13
David Stacton's The Judges of The Secret Courtnbsp;is a long-lost triumph of American fiction as well as one of the finest books ever written about the Civil War. Stacton's gripping and atmospheric story revolves around the brothers Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, members of a famous theatrical family. Edwin is a great actor, himself a Hamlet-like character whose performance as Hamlet will make him an international sensation. Wilkes is a blustering mediocrity on stage who is determined, however, to be an actor in history, and whose assassination of Abraham Lincoln will change America. Stacton's novel about how the roles we play become, for better or for worse, the lives we lead, takes us back to the day of the assassination, immersing us in the farrago of bombast that fills Wilkes's head while following his footsteps up to the fatal encounter at Ford's Theatre. The political maneuvering around Lincoln's deathbed and Wilkes's desperate flight and ignominious capture then set the stage for a political show trial that will condemn not only the guilty but the--at least relatively--innocent. For as Edwin Booth broods helplessly many years later, and as Lincoln, whose tragic death and wisdom overshadow this tale, also knew, "We are all accessories before or after some fact. . . . We are all guilty of being ourselves."… (more)
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» See also 13 mentions

Showing 3 of 3
I enjoy David Stacton's prose still. The epigram count is high, and, as I recall from my early reading of "The Day Lincoln Was Shot", the book seemed competently researched. So give this very introverted portrait of Booth a read. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Oct 13, 2020 |
A Heath Robinson machine of a book, The Judges of the Secret Court is David Stacton's take on the Lincoln assassination, and his idiosyncratic approach has both positive and negative effects. The book squeezes every drop of potential from its stage/play motif, seeing all of its characters from the theatrical perspective of a tragedian, and not just those who were there at Ford's Theatre. When it works it works, but I'd be lying if I said I was able to follow it all the way through.

That said, moments of thematic strength shine through at times, and I particularly liked how Stacton was able to find parallels between its main characters, which elevates this book to good literature. For example, John Wilkes Booth sees himself as a man on a stage (at least in Stacton's incarnation, though the real Booth was an actor) and his assassination of Lincoln as an inevitable act that must be performed in life's play. He slays the tyrant ('Sic semper tyrannis') with himself in the role of tragic hero. Yet Stacton brings out the real shabbiness of Booth's violent act, noting how most of the audience at Ford's Theatre hadn't even seen the killing, focused as they were on the stage production of Our American Cousin (pg. 62). The scene in Stacton's book, from the perspective of the disappointed Booth, is excellently done.

So too is the character of Edwin Booth, Wilkes' older brother and also an actor, who must bear the ignominy of what has been done – and all in the public eye. I watched Parkland recently, a film about the JFK assassination, and was particularly fascinated by James Badge Dale's portrayal of Robert Oswald, a decent man whose only sin was to be the older brother of Lee Harvey Oswald. In Judges, Stacton mines the dramatic potential of a similar character. Edwin Booth finds character resolution not only by sharing similar traits to his murderous brother (he finds solace in the stage, the only place he didn't feel "at a loss" (pg. 237)) but in the drawing of a subtle parallel to Lincoln himself. Edwin eventually wins respect and forgiveness, of a sort, by bearing his heavy burden with grace; he "had to live with something" that everyone else could forget, and "since he kept quiet about it while he did so, they loved him none the less for that" (pg. 241). Similar lines could be said about Lincoln and the burden of the Republic he undertook during its most difficult days. Stacton leaves it unspoken, but this forgiveness of Edwin Booth perhaps redeems the American public who initially wanted to lynch him, just as the hatred of the unpopular Lincoln was replaced by veneration after his death, when it became apparent just how heavy were the burdens he had borne.

However, the book is, as I said, a bit of a Heath Robinson machine (a Rube Goldberg machine to Americans). As a historical novel, it is found wanting even though it gets the research and the language right. The coming-together of the conspirators is undercooked, even though the ring is meant to be the anchor of the book, and it is hard to keep track of all the characters. Details are presented when convenient, not seeded into the plot so that the reader may follow, and as with the characters it can be hard to keep track. Individual scenes are well done but the general progression of the story is stilted and jerky, and the villainy of Stanton, the Secretary of War, is never developed sufficiently. The trial in Part Three seems to be what Judges is building towards – rather than Lincoln's or Booth's deaths, which end Parts One and Two respectively – but it doesn't work well. None of the conspirators, aside from Booth, have been allowed to land on the page, so outrage at the eventual sham trial is muted and the theme left muddled.

The constant tonal changes and switches in point-of-view make Judges hard to grapple with, even if there is enough in the book to make the struggle worthwhile. But there were times when it gets too much – on one occasion, the narrative shifts between three different PoVs in one single passage – and often it seems to be a fearsome thing: a stream-of-consciousness, but between multiple characters. It's rather like a historical fever dream – interesting in the moment, but one from which I woke up rather confused. ( )
  MikeFutcher | Aug 18, 2019 |
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.

Lauren Cartelli
www.theliterarygothamite.com ( )
1 vote laurscartelli | Jun 20, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
David Stactonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Crowley, JohnIntroductionmain authorsome editionsconfirmed

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David Stacton's The Judges of The Secret Courtnbsp;is a long-lost triumph of American fiction as well as one of the finest books ever written about the Civil War. Stacton's gripping and atmospheric story revolves around the brothers Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, members of a famous theatrical family. Edwin is a great actor, himself a Hamlet-like character whose performance as Hamlet will make him an international sensation. Wilkes is a blustering mediocrity on stage who is determined, however, to be an actor in history, and whose assassination of Abraham Lincoln will change America. Stacton's novel about how the roles we play become, for better or for worse, the lives we lead, takes us back to the day of the assassination, immersing us in the farrago of bombast that fills Wilkes's head while following his footsteps up to the fatal encounter at Ford's Theatre. The political maneuvering around Lincoln's deathbed and Wilkes's desperate flight and ignominious capture then set the stage for a political show trial that will condemn not only the guilty but the--at least relatively--innocent. For as Edwin Booth broods helplessly many years later, and as Lincoln, whose tragic death and wisdom overshadow this tale, also knew, "We are all accessories before or after some fact. . . . We are all guilty of being ourselves."

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