That Carter handles the material deftly is to be expected. No one can deny the audacity of his intellectual scope. A Yale Law School professor, he has produced an impressive body of academic work and an impressive amount of fiction that prove his ability to construct a compelling story.
In Abigail Canner, a highly educated, successful member of the African American elite, the author once again features a protagonist often ignored in popular fiction.
But she is more of a type than a flesh-and-blood character. A romance between her and another legal assistant lacks credibility, not because of racial differences but because neither Abigail nor her potential mate ever achieves three dimensions. In fact, none of the characters do. Action and behavior are driven more by the needs of plot rather than by any recognizable human feeling. Even Lincoln is presented as nothing more than a collection of quirks and anecdotes, alive in these pages only because Carter keeps reminding us that he did not die.
The result feels a bit like the Civil War itself — a needlessly long, drawn-out affair. It moves from point to point with a geometric, legalistic logic. The reasoning is admirable, but the effect is numbing. An interesting premise is ground down through grim workmanship. Like required class reading, one endures rather than enjoys much of it.
Far from the first or worst effort to re-imagine Lincoln (vampire slayer, indeed), Carter is hardly original to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was worth more dead than alive.
Walt Whitman, as devout as any Lincoln worshiper, saw the "Chief Martyr's" murder as a "poetic, single, central, pictorial denouement." Reflecting on the 15th anniversary of the assassination, Whitman recognized that the murder had worked a political miracle, binding a nation ripped apart by war, providing a "cement to the whole people, subtler, more underlying, than any thing in written constitution, or courts, or armies … the cement of a death identified thoroughly with that people, and for its sake." Beyond the apotheosis of one extraordinary life, Lincoln's death — how and when it happened — proved the "sharp culmination [and] solution of so many bloody and angry problems."
In delaying such a denouement, Carter is not guilty of heresy but of a far more serious charge that can be leveled against a writer: He takes a great story and makes it boring.
For this there is no appeal.
Shapiro is a former federal prosecutor who writes and produces for television.