Last week I reviewed the first story from Volume 2 of Theodore Roscoe’s tales of mysterious happenings in the town of Four Corners in upstate New York. Ghoul’s Paradise was a treat, a mad account of impossible murders and resurrection within a demented family. This week’s story…not so much. Don’t get me wrong; it is well-written with good pacing and provocative subject matter. It is however less related to the tactics of detective fiction and more in line with The Blue Hotel or The Twilight Zone. While these sort of mysteries have their own pleasures, I find them generally less satisfying.
The Man Who Hated Lincoln begins with a note from the author. Here, Roscoe’s tongue is firmly drenched with the saliva from his cheek, and while it may not seem so funny when you first read it, this opening declaration ended up being one of my favorite parts of the story. Our narrator is a historian just passing through Four Corners. His main area of interest is the assassination of Abraham Lincoln along with the many conspiracy theories that arose from the plethora of suicides, madness, and murder that followed that shattering event. In the pantheon of conspiracy theories, the ones about Lincoln (and Booth) seem tame today, but they were once as discussed (and ridiculed) as any of the ones currently flooding the internet.
On a side note, I’d like to ask my readers a serious question. All conspiracy theories have an endgame, eg. the moon landing was faked so the US could claim superiority over the Soviet Union, the US government killed Kennedy to begin the Vietnam War, and (Insert race, religion, or creed here) want to dominate the world in order to rule. All those have sensible endgames. But when it comes to lying about the Earth being round — what’s the endgame? What do flat-Earthers believe round-Earthers are achieving by lying? I’ve asked this question a lot and no one has been able to answer me. I’d really like to know.
Anyway–our narrator learns that a man who was in attendance at Ford’s Theatre on the night of Lincoln’s assassination is living in a cabin in the woods. Intrigued, he travels through what he describes as an “…early American wilderness–deer and beaver and occasionally bear–uncut timber pretty much as it was when the Indians left it.” There he finds a man (nicknamed The Old Man by the uncreative townsfolk) nearing a hundred with a lot of physical and psychological similarities to John Wilkes Booth. He’s also an actor.
What follows is a phantasmagorical performance of the night of Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent revenge of the Yankees. While it’s handled well (Roscoe knows how to paint a scene) there isn’t anywhere this story can go plot-wise except where it ends up. To put it simply, this particular whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.
There is some meaning to be derived from the construction — even when public opinion seems unanimous, there will always be small pockets of hate-filled dissent buried within uncivilized areas, places where time seems to stand still from the shockwaves of the past. As our narrator journeys into this heart of darkness, we do get a strong sense of that idea. My guess is that it won’t be entirely satisfying to the regular readers of this blog.
As it stands, this is by no means a bad story. And as I’ve mentioned a thousand times, the very nature of a collection almost guarantees the pace will shift radically at various points and the highs will be followed by lows. Next week’s story is These are Smiles That Make you Happy. Here’s hoping it’s a little meatier and a little more detectivey.