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'The Attempted Murder of Teddy Roosevelt' review: A White House whodunit

"The Attempted Murder of Teddy Roosevelt" is a new mystery by Burt Solomon. Credit: Forge

THE ATTEMPTED MURDER OF TEDDY ROOSEVELT by Burt Solomon (Forge, 304 pp., $27.99).

John Hay was one of history’s most effective backchannel men. Private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State under presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, Hay shaped the events of his day behind the scenes and bore witness to some of America’s great tragedies (he was with Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, and at Lincoln’s bedside when he died). Sophisticated, educated and wealthy, Hay was at different times in his life an industrialist, journalist and diplomat, and a biographer, poet and novelist.

Hay and his charmed circle of friends have inspired some inventive fiction, notably Dan Simmons’ 2015 novel “The Fifth Heart.” And author Burt Solomon made him the protagonist in his first mystery, 2017’s “The Murder of Willie Lincoln,” a tale of Hay’s investigation into the death of Lincoln’s beloved son. Now comes his second John Hay mystery, “The Attempted Murder of Teddy Roosevelt.”

Solomon’s latest revolves around a little-known episode in Roosevelt’s life. In 1902, Roosevelt, who had just become President after an anarchist’s bullet killed McKinley, narrowly escaped death when a runaway electric trolley struck the carriage he was riding in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Roosevelt, who was thrown from the carriage, escaped serious injury, but one of his Secret Service guards was killed.

Solomon raises some plausible doubts about the true cause of the tragedy. Was it really an accident? Could Roosevelt have been the target of another assassin? After all, the brash, idealistic politician had a lot of enemies. French Canadians outraged by talk of America annexing Canada? The industrial trusts Roosevelt itched to bust?

Roosevelt dispatches Hay to investigate. Hay is a congenial protagonist — intelligent, witty, and world-weary, a man skilled at “hearing what people didn’t say and at understanding the minds and motivations of men — why they do things, why they don’t.” (100) He carries some interesting emotional baggage — racked by the death of his own son, Hay contemplates a distracting affair with a senator’s wife. He writes poetry and reads Sherlock Holmes, and stays fit by boxing, a useful skill for fending off assailants along the way. Solomon fondly recreates the Washington, D.C., of that era — a raw, half-finished city with a burgeoning government bureaucracy at the center and rough neighborhoods with names like Swampoodle on the margins. Hay, who loathes the noise and danger created by the automobile, escapes the city’s tumult via long rambles on his beloved horse, Single Malt, and this reader enjoyed the ride. Also along for the journey are numerous historic figures — Hay’s best friend, writer Henry Adams; Secret Service director John Wilkie; crusading journalist Nellie Bly, and Roosevelt himself (regrettably for Long Island readers, only a fragment of the novel unfolds at Sagamore Hill, his home in Oyster Bay).

But there are minuses. In his perambulations, Hay interviews and interrogates everyone from corrupt Sen. Mark Hanna to wealthy financier J.P. Morgan, then ratiocinates at length on the possibilities. This succession of leads and blind alleys gets a little repetitive; one starts to long for someone to just fess up and say they did it.

Also in the minus column — the resolution of the mystery. Many suspects with a motive to kill Theodore Roosevelt were famous, with reams of words written about their lives. In considering the possible mastermind, the informed reader will have to weigh the evidence of history against the likelihood of their plotting to murder the President.

Still, “The Attempted Murder of Teddy Roosevelt” is a pleasant gateway to Hay. My next stop is the Hay biography Solomon recommends — “All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, From Lincoln to Roosevelt” by John Taliaferro.

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