Book Review: Assassin of Shadows by Lawrence Goldstone
By Janet WebbJune 11, 2019
From New York Times Notable mystery author Lawrence Goldstone, Assassin of Shadows plunges readers into the dramatic events surrounding the assassination of President William McKinley.
President William McKinley Jr. was the 25th president of the United States. On November 6th, 1901, “six months into his second term,” he was shot by “twenty-eight year old anarchist Leon Czolgosz.” McKinley was shot while shaking hands in a receiving line at Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition, more commonly known as a World’s Fair. Why didn’t the two Secret Services agents attending the president prevent the assailant from making his move?
Like the continuing questions, decades later, that examine whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted on his own, fictional Secret Services agents Walter George and Harry Swayne pursue similar inquiries. It should be noted that except for known historical figures, Andrew Goldstone fictionalizes the “minor players involved in the conspiracy.” A conspiracy because Walter George and Harry Swayne are convinced that Leon Czolgosz did not act on his own. In its simplest terms, a conspiracy is “a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.”
Rather than think that American citizens could be involved with a conspiracy to kill a president, what is a more comforting supposition? When in doubt, blame foreigners or foreign-sounding ideologies, like the ideas espoused by Chicagoan “Emma Goldman, the anarchist and feminist.” No patriotic American would use anything but the voting booth to put a new man in the Oval Office, right? But George and Swayne aren’t so sure, especially after they start to investigate and learn that Czolgosz comes from Chicago. Chicago is their home base, so they know all the players.
Imagine an assassination attempt happening today. Law enforcement would investigate the social media accounts of the accused, check his or her emails, look for where the culprit showed up on hidden cameras and that would barely scratch the surface. None of that was available in 1901. The Federal Bureau of Investigation didn’t exist until 1908 when it was called simply the Bureau of Investigation. One technique still used today was George’s reliance on the old-fashioned methodology of having artists create pictures of potential suspects or leads. Call it early facial recognition technology.
One technique still used today was George’s reliance on the old-fashioned methodology of having artists create pictures of potential suspects or leads. Call it early facial recognition technology.
A case can hinge on the slightest of occurrences. Walter George spoke alone with Czolgosz in his Buffalo jail cell. Interrogation, conversation, call it what you will—this passage from Assassin of Shadows reads true to modern-day mores.
You have only seconds to decide how to interrogate a prisoner, whether to be friendly or official, whether to flatter or intimidate. You must decide from that first eye contact, that first sizing up of a prisoner’s posture, his intelligence, his fear, his stubbornness. Did he want to talk or to remain silent? Once the choice of approach was made, there would be no opportunity to change tacks.
George “forces” the sergeant on duty to give him the keys to Czolgosz’s cell, while the young man observes. Czolgosz admits his guilt when he says simply to George, “I done my duty.” Czolgosz claims that his duty was, “To all them who go hungry whilst others make millions.” But George needs to know all the circumstances of Czolgosz’s life prior to the shooting—where he went, who he associated with, where he lives. When Czolgosz was arrested, he called himself an anarchist. Try as he may, George can’t pry any information out of the prisoner about his associates. He tries one more tactic.
Walter nodded. “All right. Can I get you anything?”
“Whaddaya mean?” Czolgosz eyed Walter with suspicion.
Walter let his hands drop between his legs. “I don’t approve of what you did, Leon,” he said softly. “I won’t pretend that I do. But you’re going to the penitentiary for a long time. Maybe twenty years. Maybe forever. I don’t expect things will go too well for you in there. I don’t see the harm in you being a little more comfortable in the meantime.”
Kindness is successful in a way that intimidation was not. Leon asks for a book from his room, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy.
“I read it eight times already. Great book. You read it yet?”
“Sure. Hasn’t everyone?”
“I liked it. I hope the future is like he said.” Actually, Walter thought the book was a load of tripe—all that nonsense about people living together in harmony. People fought for what they wanted. Always had, always will.
Walter would have known of Looking Backward: it was immensely popular and influenced countless socialists of the time. Lawrence Goldstone has a deft ability to weave facts and fiction into wholly believable cloth. Walter finds the book in a drawer in Leon’s boarding house room and starts putting together a framework for the young man’s activities. He draws on his own experience growing up rough in Chicago—where his refuge was the library. Might Leon have done the same? An austere librarian in the building closest to the boarding house asks Walter why a killer would come to a library. She looks at the copy of Looking Backward in Walter’s hands and information spills out: “The first day he brought the book.” What did he do with his time after that?
“Kept to himself. Only seemed to talk to Esther.”
“Esther Kolodkin. One of our librarians. She’s not here today.”
The librarian shook her head. “No. Her sister is coming from Chicago to see the Exposition. Esther took a couple days off to show her around.”
Do these dribs and drabs of information lead anywhere? Yes. By the time George tracks down Esther, she’s lying dead in the morgue. A book leads to a death which leads back to Chicago and the whole ball of wax starts to emerge.
It’s noteworthy that when George and Swayne do, repeatedly, find a lead to follow, the people they want to speak to end up dead. One of the immutable laws of a successful conspiracy to eliminate all the loose ends. There’s a somber shroud of inexorable fate surrounding the assassination investigation of these two dogged Secret Service operatives…but that inevitability makes the fictionalized history in Assassin of Shadows even more relevant and absorbing.