In Carter’s fascinating “what-if” construction of history, Abraham Lincoln doesn’t die in April 1865 after being shot by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. Instead, he survives.

Two years later, and following the death (by suicide?) of the president’s wife, Lincoln’s growing contingent of enemies — led by radicals within his own Republican Party, who believe the post-Civil War South deserves much harsher treatment than it has received — maneuver to oust him from the Executive Mansion. They charge Lincoln with, among other egregious offenses, acting the role of “a petty tyrant” and trying to usurp congressional authority by establishing military rule in what was then known as Washington City, “with himself at the head.”

Beneath his tale about congressional hearings to remove the 16th president from office (which the author based, in part, on the actual impeachment and trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868), Carter — a Yale law professor and author of The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002) — layers in a dynamic subplot involving the murder of one of Lincoln’s attorneys, coded messages that could reveal a “conspiracy [that] reached the heights of the President’s closest friends and advisers,” and a packet of letters which might prove invaluable to the defense, but come from a suspect source.

Taking the lead in that subplot is Abigail Canner, a brilliant young African-American law clerk (rare in those days), who persists in yanking at the loose threads of political conspiracy long after her boss tells her to desist — only to find that her connection with those schemes is closer than she’d imagined. In addition to serving as this work’s operative sleuth, Abigail is the mirror in which we observe the class and racial struggles of mid-19th-century America, as well as the social intrigues of a capital city hinging North to South. Nearly as engaging as she are some of the genuine characters marching through Carter’s pages — everyone from the hyper-honorable Senator Charles Sumner and the notorious Union general, politician and murderer, Dan Sickles, to a “sleepy but cunning” Lincoln.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln offers not only a U.S. government in crisis and a capital rife with rumor, “machination and double dealing,” but a mystery of history-changing proportions. Although its denouement features a turn that’s too convenient by half, Carter’s latest novel remains one of the finest historical thrillers I’ve read so far this year. ~ Jeff Pierce

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