Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Burt Solomon's "The Attempted Murder of Teddy Roosevelt"

Burt Solomon is a contributing editor for The Atlantic. In 1991 he won the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency. His nonfiction books include the acclaimed Where They Ain't, a history of baseball in the 1890s.

The Murder of Willie Lincoln is Solomon's first novel.

Solomon applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Attempted Murder of Teddy Roosevelt, his new novel featuring John Hay, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Still, I had to admire Conan Doyle’s skill at creating a mood and the easy-to-swallow implausibility of a plot that made even less sense than this mystery of mine. I marveled even more at Sherlock Holmes and his formidable powers of observation, the subtlety of his logic, the fierceness of his brain. These were not my strengths. I could be staring at a tub of lard and (as Clara enjoyed pointing out) see everything except the lard. I was reasonably confident that two plus two equals four and even that twenty-five squared was … I had to think … six hundred and a little more. But I could never match Sherlock in sheer brainpower. Nor did I share Vidocq’s flair for disguises or his talent for infiltrating the forces of villainy.

So what in the hell was I good at? I don’t mean as a husband or as a father or even as a secretary of state. My deficiencies in each of those roles are no secret, at least to me . Nor is the pain that they cause, the clench in my stomach when I make mistakes. Of which I have made more than my share. I’d like to think that comes from reaching so high, trying so hard, but I’m probably just excusing my shortcomings. Am I a perfectionist? Don’t make me laugh. At times I stand astonished at how imperfect I am. Let me count the ways. (Oh no, allow me.) As the chief diplomat for a self-consciously virile nation, I’ve been clever but not as blustery—my stick isn’t as big—as Theodore would like. As a husband … my faults—of the heart, not of the flesh—grind like wet, cold sand.

As a father … My throat clutched. It’s so easy being a father of girls. You tell them how pretty they are, which is even easier if you don’t have to pretend, and you keep their heads from swelling unduly; you find them husbands, or they find husbands for themselves, and your duty is done. With a son, however, your job is to turn him from a boy into a man. This requires molding and the sort of intervention that any red-blooded boy would resist. Only later would he see the benefit, and surely he did. He seemed to be happy at the end—he seemed to be—and Lord knows I hope he was. Until then, I had never felt old.
A cool question: Does page 99 give a good or an inaccurate impression of my book?

The answer is yes.

It is simultaneously unrepresentative of how most of the book reads, yet it’s also crucial in understanding the main character.

Let me explain.

This passage is probably the longest soliloquy in the book—all of it self-reflection, lacking any dialogue or action in a story that includes a fair amount of both. Yet what comes through, I’d like to think, is the essence of my detective and narrator, John Hay—his sardonic wit, his painful self-awareness of his personal flaws, even as he searches for confidence as a detective, as a husband, and as a father grieving for his son.

In fact, I’d say the biggest difference between this book and my previous one, The Murder of Willie Lincoln, is the depth of Hay’s character as I’ve tried to portray it. In part it’s because he is 63 instead of 23, and Hay himself was deeper (and maybe I am, too). This is nowhere so clear as on page 99, where Hay leaves himself vulnerable to the reader. At times I stand astonished at how imperfect I am. … Until then, I had never felt old. He is telling you the raw truth of who he is.
Visit Burt Solomon's website.

--Marshal Zeringue