Any book about the Lincoln assassination is bound to make D.C. seem gloomy, but the city is downright grotesque in David Stacton’s newly reissued 1961 novel, The Judges of the Secret Court. “Washington City was a quagmire of brawling, drunken mud; pigs wandered across Pennsylvania Avenue, the Capitol still lacked parts of its facing, and those buildings which were not shanties lacked all elegance,” he writes. It smelled like a “mixture of whisky, dust and stale garbage in open drains.” Small wonder the Secret Service agent assigned to protect the president at Ford’s Theatre is slacking off, dully musing, “Who cared whether the President was shot or not?”
Nobody but the author, it appears, and Stacton’s reasons for caring have little to do with honoring Lincoln, who’s dislikeable in the few scenes in which he appears. What seems to have inspired this provocative, darkly intense novel is Stacton’s fascination with John Wilkes Booth’s madness.
Here, Booth is a consummate narcissist, an actor determined to make Lincoln’s death a lesson not about North-versus-South politics but about himself on the grandest stage possible. On the lam with a leg rotting from gangrene, Booth reads the papers on the president’s death and is genuinely shocked nobody’s celebrating the assassin. (“He alone had had the courage to kill him. Why then these eulogies of Lincoln, and none of him?”)
Booth’s imagined greatness is so decoupled from reality that when soldiers corner him in a barn he ridiculously demands, “Withdraw your men a hundred yards from the door, and I’ll come out and fight you.” But the madness in this novel isn’t Booth’s alone. It’s in the rotting District; in the ashtray one of Booth’s cohorts uses that’s shaped from the skull of a dead soldier; in the hellfire preachers and amoral politicians that nightmarishly flicker in the story. Stacton routinely refers to “the world” in the novel, and almost always the term is synonymous with a theater of cruelty and injustice.
The Judges of the Secret Court sags in its closing third, after Booth has died. Stacton has done little more than sketch out the alleged co-conspirators, which makes their fates at the hand of a kangaroo court less interesting. But the court itself is the main point—it, too, is part of the mad world. As detectives, prosecutors, and the Secretary of War collude to ensure the verdicts align with the will of a bloodthirsty public, Stacton’s prose can be crushingly deadpan: Detectives tell one suspect “that unless he could remember more than he had so far, he would be hanged. So he remembered more.” In the same way Booth takes a crazed refuge in Shakespeare, the authorities’ corrosion is rooted in the letter of the law.
In 1963 Stacton was praised by Time along with Walker Percy, Ralph Ellison, John Updike, and others as a writer who’d sustain American fiction after Hemingway and Faulkner. He died in 1968, never fulfilling that promise. The Judges of the Secret Court is no Invisible Man or Rabbit, Run. But Stacton was remarkably attuned to the machinations of personal and civic madness, and those themes endure. Instead of a simple historical novel, he wrote an unsettling proof that “the world we feel so secure in has such thin walls.”