If you’re looking for a kick-ass espionage thriller that moves at a breakneck speed, features a large cast of characters behaving honorably and/or atrociously, and ups the ante and anxiety as well as any episode of 24, you’ve found the right book. – Terry Goodman, Senior Editor – AmazonEncore
Chances are, you’ve already read John J. Miller without realizing it. Having “made his bones,” as the Corleones say, at Reason magazine, the libertarian-leaning journalist has been a fixture at National Review for well over a decade and has recently penned a number of high-profile pieces for the Wall Street Journal. Several provocative nonfiction books bear his name, and the intriguingly titled The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football is up next from Harper Collins. Given his ambitious nature, it was probably inevitable that he would make a stab at fiction. I am pleased to say, however, that he has bucked the trend of so many of his colleagues on the right end of the teeter totter and has opted to not serve up a “ripped-from-the-headlines” techno-thriller bursting at the seams with conniving Middle-Eastern terrorists and the ever-present threat of nuclear armageddon. Instead, he has hurled us back in time–to 1861, to be exact–where a mysterious assassin skulks around Washington, DC with his sights set on Abraham Lincoln. Will the gangly new president survive this attempt on his life?
Anyone who’s cracked a U.S. History textbook knows that Honest Abe shuffled off this mortal coil in 1865, having suffered the twin indignities of sitting through a really tedious play and then getting plugged by an actor. So would Miller have us believe that John Wilkes Booth spent four years crafting his plan to pop a cap in the pres at point blank range? Or is this one of those Harry Turtledove/Newt Gingrich/Philip Roth alternate history doorstops?
As it turns out, neither. The First Assassin is set very much in this reality and, despite the fact that the reader knows Lincoln will survive any attempt on his life prior to 1865, the book manages to makes to make one forget all that. For 446 pages, history really does hang in the balance.
It’s a great read: something you can enjoy at the beach and learn from at the same time. So it’s surprising that John Miller, seasoned author, had difficulty finding a publisher for this supremely marketable book.
“I gave the manuscript to my agent,” he tells me, “who is very good and who has sold a couple of my nonfiction books. But the economy was rotten and publishers are always reluctant to take a chance with unproven, first-time novelists. After a while, it became clear that the traditional route wasn’t working. I investigated self-publishing and partnered with CreateSpace.com and it was wonderful. My book was published and became available for anyone who wanted to read it.”
And so it would seem that the biggest hurdle had been overcome. But then something very strange happened: An avalanche of one-star reviews deluged Amazon.com on the first day of the book’s release, all focusing on the first page of the book–which, not coincidentally, had been published online as a teaser. “A left-wing website urged its minions to post negative customer reviews simply because I contribute to National Review–the magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr,” he explains. “So a number of people who had not read the book trashed it. It was frustrating to watch this unfold, but the good news is that they were soon overwhelmed by positive reviewers. In the end, their attack may have been a good thing for The First Assassin because it earned some blogger sympathy, called attention to my book, and probably introduced it to readers who would not have learned about it in the absence of a controversy.”
As it turned out, all the activity swarming around The First Assassin also caught the attention of an editor at AmazonEncore, Amazon.com’s own publishing imprint. “He had tracked the book’s rank, followed the reader reviews, and then read the book himself. He offered to put out a new edition and I jumped at the opportunity.” Consequently, Miller’s “Little Book that Could” has gone in the span of just one year from a modest self-published edition to a beautiful trade re-release with the full marketing might of Amazon.com behind it. Not bad, not bad at all.
Which isn’t to say that The First Assassin is not without its faults; cliches bubble up to the surface in a few spots, and there is a heavy-handed nod to The Most Dangerous Game that I could have done without. But Miller’s deft plotting, strong characterization, and meticulous attention to historical detail mitigate any lapses. And Lincoln actually turns out to be the least interesting character in the story–eclipsed by Mazorca, the hired assassin: a ruthless instrument of death straight out of a Fleming novel; Charles P. Rook: the embattled protagonist; and, most significantly, Langston Bennett: the South Carolina planter who sets the whole scheme in motion. Bennett is a fascinating and not entirely unsympathetic figure, believing sincerely that he must commit this one act of evil (the assassination of Lincoln) for the greater good.
Equally impressive is the rich evocation of day-to-day nineteenth century life in our nation’s capital. “I read everything I could about the capital in the spring of 1861,” he says. “Margaret Leech’s Reveille in Washington was really helpful–it’s an excellent history of Washington DC during the Civil War. I also spent time in libraries looking at period newspapers on microfilm. The advertisements in those old papers named stores, listed products, and so on. In The First Assassin there’s a scene in a bookstore. It was a real bookstore and one of the books it was advertising at the time plays a minor role in my story.”
Miller’s website states that The First Assassin has been his “true passion” throughout his professional career. In the midst of his many other obligations–journalistic assignments, his nonfiction books–Miller would get up at 5 AM to hammer away at his pet project. “There were long stretches where I wasn’t able to work on the book at all,” he says, “but I stuck with the routine.”
We can be glad he did. The First Assassin firmly establishes John J. Miller as a novelist. So much so, in fact, that his journalism seems almost a distraction. I do worry that his noted affiliation with the conservative movement may actually be functioning as a double-edged sword: on the one hand ensuring a built-in readership (it was via his work in National Review, after all, that I first heard of him) but also holding him back from the more mainstream audience he deserves. Case in point: the aforementioned fusillade on the Amazon page from lefties who hadn’t read the book, especially ironic considering The First Assassin harbors no political agenda whatsoever (unless you’re still fighting the Civil War, in which case John is for the Union). And I’m not so sure that the glowing endorsements from Brad Thor and Vince Flynn help matters. True, any debut novelist should be so lucky as to get blurbs from two thriller writers at the top of their game. But those two names are also splashed all over the cover of The Overton Window, the new thriller “by” the entity that I can only call The Glenn Beck Corporation (TM). Fair enough; for all I know, The Overton Window is a cracking good yarn. But the lazy observer (as evidenced by those Amazon postings) could draw the conclusion that Miller’s book is pitched at the Tea Party cabal, and that is simply not the case. What I’m getting at here is that I don’t want to see John’s book chucked into the “thrillers by conservatives” bargain bin alongside remainder copies of Newt Gingrich’s 1945. He deserves to sell at least as many books as John Jakes, and anyway, he can write circles around the North and South author.
I finished The First Assassin wanting more. And to my great delight, Miller is working on a follow-up. “I’ve started a sequel,” he says. “It takes several of the characters and brings them further into the war, as the real fighting erupts and Americans realize they’re in for something much more violent than what many of them had anticipated.”
So…do yourself, and Mr. Miller, a favor and pick up The First Assassin. Not only will you enjoy this novel immensely, your purchase increases the likelihood that there will be a Part Two. And that is something I eagerly await.
Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church