Launching a Conspiracy: Rewriting History in The Surrogate Assassin

MARCH / APRIL 2014: BY CHARITY BISHOP

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For as long as there have been assassinations, there have been conspiracy theorists. Few of them  captured my interest until I read The Surrogate Assassin, by Christopher Leppek. This well-written book invites Sherlock Holmes to investigate the events behind the president’s death and form new and startling conclusions. Holmes is drawn into the case through an appeal of Edwin Booth, the elder  brother of the infamous murderer of Abraham Lincoln. It is many years after the incident, but various historical figures are still alive, and Holmes is intrigued by the thought of unmasking the “true” murderer.

Sherlock Holmes is known for his incredible skills of deduction and observation and his firm presence in Victorian England. Various novels over the years have tried, without success, to recapture the brilliance of the originals while inviting Holmes to solve subsequent crimes or engage physically with other well-known literary characters from the same period, such as The Phantom of the Opera (two separate accounts, one of which has a charming ending), Count Dracula, and Jack the Ripper. But Leppek does what no writer before (or since) has done: he rewrites history through fiction, in a believable enough way that the reader is temporarily fooled into wondering if his theories and alternate explanations are plausible or even real. His careful attention to detail of the murder paint a vivid, realistic picture of possibilities outside established facts, and the cleverness with which he does it is nearly as intelligent as his “borrowed” leading man, Mr. Holmes. Yes, Watson is there too, an affable and good-natured observer and occasional participant, much as he is in the original stories, but as always, it is Holmes that carries the narrative.

The style and flair of the pastiche is remarkable in its closeness to the tone of the original, its characters unchanged and still engaging, but its new premise set in an entirely fictitious yet surprisingly accurate world. The author weaves historical events and facts into the narrative in new ways, planting seeds of doubt in the reader’s mind; not only does he validate his alternate theories but Sherlock Holmes ceases to be merely a fictional character at the same time. By tying him into an actual historical event, he becomes “real.”

One might call it an early foray into “speculative fiction,” if it weren’t for the absence of any remarkable events other than the skill involved in crafting the case. But it does raise interesting ideas and questions about the impact fiction has on history. A reader unfamiliar with the true facts of the situation might accept these claims as the truth, and go on to share this misinformation with others, planting seeds of suspicion that lead to “conspiracy theories.”

Fiction has a profound impact on society; it can be a force used for good or evil but it is never meaningless. Books have less impact than they did a hundred years ago, when they were the primary source of epic entertainment; when Mr. Holmes plunged to his death along with his nemesis, London went into a state of mourning and men wore black armbands to symbolize their sadness. Even though Holmes wasn’t “real,” he was to his readers to such an extent that he impacted society with his temporary “death.” Similarly, the modern-day Sherlock has impacted modern British society by becoming a fashion icon for young men.

The common man on the street wouldn’t be able to separate the facts of the sinking of Titanic from the fictionalized account by James Cameron; most saw and believed, both the true facts and the fabricated fiction. The most powerful medium today is film; through fiction, it has steadily chipped away at the truth of past eras, establishing modern morals and beliefs onto previous eras. This can either be in a form of romanticizing (excluding the brutal realities of a period) or in some cases, diminishing a past era by concentrating on its evils or inserting fictional evils as realities to plant negative ideas about the period.  If you choose to go by film’s perception of the Civil War, all slaves were brutally treated—and everyone owned them. The reality is far different. We must learn to see fiction for what it is—fiction, and never trust it to tell us the facts. ♥

marchapril2014

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