The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth by David Stacton

judges of the secret court

Does this description of Lincoln on his death-bed make up for all that I hold suspect about historical fiction?

It was a sad face, everyone knew that, and an ugly face, but the approach of death made something evident in it that few had noticed, something youthful, ageless, and despite itself commanding. It was something worse than a face born to rule, something far worse. It was a face doomed to responsibility, and therefore sad because of what it knew.  As he lay dying, under the dry shimmering jet of the gasselier, the tact drained out of it, and one could see, what usually lay concealed, the awful marks of knowledge.  While Leale watched, the dark shadows under the eyes became darker.  But the face itself became luminous.

I read David Stacton’s terrific novel The Judges of the Secret Court right after meeting with my old book club to discuss Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH.  Binet’s novel is, in part, a critique of historical fiction which calls the entire project of projecting personality onto historical fact, of trying to “breathe life” into people long past living, into question.  It’s a project I’ve always held suspect. How can anyone know, or presume to know what a historical figure thought or felt.  Historical fiction has always struck me as a close cousin of fantasy fiction. To presume that anyone, even Hilary Mantel or David Stacton, knows what someone like Oliver Cromwell or John Wilkes Booth was thinking or feeling at any given point in time is ludicrous in my opinion.  As ridiculous as a Hobbit carrying a rink to Mt. Doom.

Yet Mr. Stacton’s novel worked for me.  I was convinced that his story was true–I was moved by the events and people he portrayed.

Take this passage for example.  In it, the Shakespearen actor Edwin Booth thinks about advice he wishes he could give to his younger brother John Wilkes:

There was something wrong with Wilkes.  He was no actor.  He was never the parts he played.  His best and only performance was himself.  Yet he had been good in Julius Caesar, obsessively good.  Edwin had been disturbed at that.  He had wanted to say: It is only a play, and the world is not a mirror, but an audience. Unlike a mirror, it never gives you back the echo vanity you search for, for an audience does not reflect the image you see in it.  It may seem to, but there are a thousand faces behind the image the audience echoes back to you while you posture, and those are the  faces which judge.

I think that is very good, “the world is not a mirror, but an audience.”  No one can say if Edwin Booth really thought such things, or just how much he worried about his younger brother Wilkes, but in the context of David Stacton’s novel these men became characters.  As characters, they all felt true-to-life.  I believed them.  All of them.

The Judges of the Secret Court covers the events and people in the final day of President Lincoln’s life and in the weeks afterwards during the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth and the trial of those accused of aiding him.  That this trial was largely a miscarriage of justice comes as no surprise.  Not to those of us who read The Lincoln Conspiracy when we were in junior high back in 1977.  Mr. Stacton’s novel is the better book, and the more accurate in spite of being historical fiction.

Before he died at the age of 45, David Stacton published many pieces of historical fiction under his own name along with westerns, murders mysteries and a “soft-core gay novel” under several pen names, according to the introduction which unfortunately lists neither titles nor pen names.  I’ll have to do some digging, but if any of his other books are as good as The Judges of the Secret Court then historical fiction may have found a new convert.

And for the record, I think The Hobbit is a terrific book, too.