The Lincoln Letter was one of the more interesting entries in the Peter Fallon series of historical treasure hunts.
Like its predecessors, The Lincoln Letter is a split narrative. About a third of the novel unfolds in the present day. Fallon, an antiquarian/treasure hunter, lands on the trail of a potentially valuable lost artifact, a diary kept by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Fallon and his travel writer girlfriend, Evangeline Carrington, find themselves in a complex web in Washington, DC, navigating the numerous factions and power players manipulating them in pursuit of the diary.
That story alternates with chapters set during the Civil War. They focus on Halsey Hutchinson, a Harvard-educated soldier who has several encounters with Lincoln. Halsey is responsible for the loss of Lincoln’s diary and spends the remainder of the war trying to retrieve it. Along the way, he runs a deadly gamut of spies, traitors, profiteers, soldiers, and ex-slaves, all with competing agendas. Halsey is present for several important historical moments and mixes with such famous names as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Walt Whitman, John Wilkes Booth and Clara Barton. The two narratives cross and converge as Peter works his way through danger in the present day to locate the hiding place of the diary, as dramatized at the climax of Halsey’s story.
William Martin has produced several Peter Fallon novels, some excellent, one or two not so great. The Lincoln Letter was a solid entry in the series. Peter remained an appealing lead character, a colorful, resourceful pivot for the contemporary action. Evangeline was less shrill than she’d been in previous outings, but still came off a bit whiney. Martin’s attempts to weave modern issues into the narrative didn’t quite come off, though were less ham-fisted than in the past. The treasure hunt itself was interesting enough to keep a reader’s attention, even if Martin strained to come up with plausible political/philosophical reasons for the various factions to want the diary. Sometimes “it’s valuable” would have done just fine.
The Civil War sections were much more consistently compelling. Martin has a strong hand with historical fiction and did a first rate job of recreating the political gamesmanship and shadowy conspiracies of Washington and the brutalities of the battle fields of the Civil War. Halsey was an intriguing central character and Martin did a nice job of developing him into a three-dimensional, sympathetic protagonist. If at times a reader might want to slap sense into Halsey, his basic decency and loyalty to Lincoln made him easy to root for. Martin’s recreation of Civil War Washington was probably the novel’s greatest strength. He captured the tension and danger of the era and used it as an effective canvas. His research was impeccable and he packed the narrative with all kinds of subtle details that enriched the story without being showy. Really, the historical sections are so strong, Martin could consider dispensing with the contemporary framing device in the future.
For fans who have read the previous entries in the Peter Fallon series, The Lincoln Letter is an enjoyable outing. Newcomers would be better advised to start with Back Bay.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on February 17, 2016.