John Wilkes Booth, meet Jack Bauer. That's the recipe of "Manhunt," an engrossing blend of history and thriller that pulls off the heady feat of creating edge-of-your-seat narrative even as its conclusion is inevitable. And the ride? Like Bauer's TV show, "24," James L. Swanson's tale of the search for President Abraham Lincoln's killer rivets because of its pacing - and because its shifting scenes and characters are juggled with sure hands.
Lincoln is gone within the first quarter of the book, leaving center stage for his assassin, the celebrity-actor Booth. All but the most avid Lincoln followers will be surprised by the numerous twists and turns surrounding the president's death, as well as Booth's motley crew of co-conspirators, many of whom escaped severe punishment.
How many of us remember - or even learned - that Booth spent 12 days wandering the thickets and swamps of Maryland and Virginia after murdering Lincoln at Ford's Theatre? Or that Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were also targeted by Booth on the same fateful night in April 1865?
Swanson, a longtime Lincoln scholar, draws from a wide range of diaries, trial transcripts, and other historical documents, hewing the historical line as he ratchets up the suspense. Even on the lam, Booth remains a prisoner of Vanity Fair, begging as much for a glimpse of newspapers detailing his ignominious act as he does for provisions. For a man used to fame and fine hotels, Booth rails at his fate, bogged down in muck and mire as the nation elevates Lincoln to martyr.
"After being hunted like a dog ... I am here in despair," Booth writes in his diary. "And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for, for what made[William] Tell a Hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat."
This tale is anything but common. Indeed, it is altogether fitting and proper that it should be consecrated - that is, blurbed on the book's jacket - by both novelist Patricia Cornwell and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Grade: A
• Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.