The President's Shadow
A novel by Brad Meltzer
Book review by Jules Brenner
Grand Central Publishing, released 6/16/15, 416 pp., $28.00
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U.S. president Orson Wallace's wife, first lady Shona, loves her rose garden at the white house and she's fanatical about it. Why else is she plunging her fingers in the dirt at 5:30 AM? Well, the sane reason is that all's quiet and no one's around. Plus, there's no problem with the Secret Service, the president's legendary protection detail, because they've been made aware of her pre-dawn hobby.

On this particular morning, while groping in the well-nourished seedbed, her fingers hit something soft but solid and when she clears the area enough to identify what it is, it's the start of an experience she'll never get over. The horror of it too shocking to forget, something for which no gardening primer prepared her. A human arm. Placed there for her to find. But, in this historical conspiracy thriller, It's not a message for her.

It's not even for her husband. This is a message intended for a current member of the Culper Ring, a 200-year old secret society founded by George Washington to protect the presidency: Beecher White, staffer with the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (and the narrative voice).

Beecher is alerted to a presidential request for his father's file, which raises curiosity and takes him to a basement meeting with the first lady's press secretary. After telling him about the arm, she shows him a set of photos of an old flattened penny coin found in the fist attached to the arm.

Beecher identifies it as something worn by members of his dead father's old unit. The imprinting of an owl holding a plank tells him the wearer was a member of another secret organization, called the "Plankholders."

All of which is ominous. Someone who killed the previous first lady and took a shot at the president (in an earlier episode) just escaped from a padded cell at a mental institution.

The president presses Beecher to fulfill his duties as a member of the Culper Ring and catch this arm lunatic. Wallace entices Beecher with a folder on his father, compiled at the time of his death. Will it tell him the truth about the suspicious accident that caused the senior Mr. White's to die at a young age, when Beecher was a tot?

That question is part of an imaginative White House tale with multiple threads and no shortage of suspects, societies, and agendas, including mental case/assassin Nico Hadrian who seems more friend than foe, his dying daughter Clementine and childhood friend Marshall Lusk. Friends and suspects, all. And, while we're piling up on hidden societies, (and a certain lack of definiteness about everyone) there's also bald Ezra, member of the Knights of the Golden Circle.

Secrecy, doubts, dueling motives and deliberate confusion form the thematic web wrapping around enough mysteries, historical and comtemporary, to knit a shroud. And when a second arm is found by a Secret Service agent, conspiratorial developments grow darker and deeper and we learn that the men who were part of the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln were held at Fort Jefferson, Florida after the assassination. All through, separating the victims from the suspects is held in an intentional vagueness.

A twisty thriller challenging to sort out, but Meltzer's pace is lively and full of a historian's sense of irony. The climactic scene takes place in Fort Jefferson, Florida.

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