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The Fifth Assassin
Brad Meltzer

Grand Central Publishing
January 2013/9780466553971

Reviewed by Elise Cooper

Brad Meltzer’s latest novel, The Fifth Assassin, is the second installment in the Culper Ring Trilogy. With all the research he puts into his books, it takes Meltzer two years to write his novels. The wait for The Fifth Assassin was well worth it. It is a fascinating story that blends historical facts and secret codes with an engrossing mystery.

Beecher White, the trilogy’s hero, discovers a killer in Washington DC who is copycatting Presidential assassinations. The fifth assassin, called the Knight, re-enacts the assassinations by killing church figures, with the final target the current President, Orson Wallace. The Culper Ring, created by President George Washington to protect the presidency rather than the president, takes action to find the assassin. Meltzer stated that he had the church figures assassinated to “have the Knight on the same journey as the first three Presidential assassins. They are divine interventionists on a divine mission. There is always the power struggle between Church and State.”

The characters are well developed. Besides Beecher, those returning are President Orson Wallace, fellow archivist Aristotle “Tot” Westman, Clementine, Beecher’s childhood love interest and daughter of Nico Hadrian, the institutionalized unsuccessful presidential assassin. Meltzer also introduces some new characters: Mac, the undercover computer nerd, and Marshall Lusk, Beecher’s childhood friend, who now works for the Government Accountability Office to uncover, through stealth tactics, possible security breaches.

Meltzer commented that sometimes the writing process takes over since, “Marshall was supposed to be a minor character, but as the story unfolded he took on a voice of his own and elbowed his way throughout the entire book. The same was true with the real-life assassins since I never thought of telling their stories. I was able to study them and learn what they all had in common.”

Through these character’s eyes the reader is able to grasp the theme of the book, learning to forgive. The author noted, “My point is that I wanted to show it is possible to make peace with yourself or someone else. What happens to us as children makes up who and what we are today as we try to grow up and change. There is a large segment of our population that turns to the belief in G-d, and wants a relationship with G-d to help heal wounds.”

Since Meltzer lost his dad, are the scenes in the book about Beecher’s feelings for his dad biographical? “This is the first book I have written since both my parents have died. That is what I have had to deal with the past two years of my life, my parent’s death. You show me a novel and I will show you what the author is dealing with at that time. Beecher is dealing with what I am dealing with. I know Beecher’s story real well because it is my own story.”

How did he come up with such an interesting plot involving the deck of playing cards, and the four Presidential assassins, John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Lee Harvey Oswald? “At The Museum of Health and Medicine visitors can find the bones of Booth, pieces of the skull of Abraham Lincoln, and I saw a swatch of leather with writing on it. When I asked about it I was told it was a tattoo. I realized at that moment I was not holding a piece of leather, but it was actually someone’s skin. The tattoo was a red diamond. Being a history major in college, any book I write will have my love of history in it. I remembered learning that Booth handed the valet at Lincoln’s side a card. I imagined it could by a playing card. The novelist in me took over and the plot was born. I was able to study and learn what all the presidential assassins had in common. There was no question if I was going to write a book involving presidential assassinations Lincoln would have to be involved.” He actually came full circle, since the beginning of the book has a copycat assassination of Lincoln while the ending takes place at the Lincoln Memorial.

Meltzer is a master at writing his mysteries as puzzles where the pieces are hints dropped throughout the book. The reader is challenged to connect the dots with the clues presented in the novel. These puzzle pieces include secret codes, invisible ink, commonality between the presidential assassins/assassinations, and playing cards. The symbols of the cards include the four facets of society: hearts being the sign of the Church, diamonds as the arrowheads, representing vassals and archers, clubs as the husbandmen of farmers, and spades as the points of lances, representing the knights. For example, Meltzer wants his readers to consider the king of hearts, and look very closely to see why it represents the “suicide king.”

Although the books do not have to be read in order, to get a better grasp of the plot The Inner Circle should be read first. Intertwined throughout the books are history tidbits combined with secret codes that create fast-paced, riveting plots. The Fifth Assassin is a must read novel for anyone who wants a mystery involving many twists and turns. This book is well worth the wait, but unfortunately fans most wait another two years for the next installment.

Reviews of other titles by Brad Meltzer

Tenth Justice [book]
The Millionaires [book]
The Zero Game [book] [audio]
Inner Circle (Culper Ring #1) [book] [audio]
The Fifth Assassin (Culper Ring #2) [book]
The President's Shadow (Culper Ring #3) [audio] [book]
The House Of Secrets [book]
The President’s Shadow [book] [audio]
The Escape Artist [audio]

2004 Author of the Month

Reviewed 2013