The Lincoln Log: The Judges of the Secret Court

08/03/2011 4:00 AM |

The Judges of the Secret Court

By David Stacton

(NYRB Classics)

Time-travelling novelist David Stacton has returned to print for the first time in eons. This occasion is, hopefully, only the first spire of the emerging sunken cathedral that is Stacton’s fascinating body of work: three triptychs and change of fact-grounded historical novels, the odd biography and, to make ends meet, pseudonymously signed potboilers.
Stacton was born in San Francisco, travelled Europe widely, published principally in the UK, addressed his manuscripts from places like Tucson, Albuquerque, and Elephant Butte, and died, under confusing circumstances, in Denmark in 1968.

That’s a busy, vagabond-ish 44 years, but Stacton’s range as a novelist was boundless. He wrote of the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan, Medieval Japan, Caravaggio’s Italy, and the Thirty Years’ War. Stacton leapt between eras with such facility by combining a researcher’s rigor for detail with a worldview that assumed throughlines of human behavior across time. From the introduction to 1965’s Kaliyuga: “[M]y novels are based on the assumption that though reincarnation does not exist for us, nevertheless the same types of people are born over and over again.”

Stacton was an active and incisive narrator to his histories, and his conclusions on “types”were delivered in epigrammatic asides. Stacton often hid these venomous truths amid exotic bouquets of prose, but in The Judges of the Secret Court he adapts to the parched, rusty, domestic tone of postwar Washington City, its odor “a mixture of whisky, dust, and stale garbage in open drains.”Here Stacton bears witness to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the subsequent fates of the Keystone conspirators at the show-trial tribunal staged by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, especial attention paid to the railroading of presumed-innocent Mary Surratt. (The same case recently reviewed in the entirely disposable Robert Redford-directed The Conspirator.)

It’s one of Stacton’s truisms that history’s actors are exactly that; an aside from his family biography The Bonapartes is typical: “they were never off stage for longer than they could help.”For Judges, the record supplies Stacton with an actual dynasty of Shakespearians for stars. The story is framed by the late-in-life recollections of John Wilkes Booth’s surviving brother Edwin, wandering the Players Club that he founded, still standing today on the south side of Gramercy Park. The author himself did not resist the theatrical impulse. John Crowley’s introduction repeats reports of Stacton’s penchant for cowboy boots, while jacket photos show a quiffed author in sighing solitude, suggesting the thirtysomething Morrissey.

As the cast enter and exit their scenes, Stacton looks at them, then looks into them. The author’s interior view of the unhappy and condemned Lincoln lingers, as do his often astringent summaries of bit players. Of the tenant who will betray Mrs. Surratt: “He knew perfectly well what she thought of him. It was what he thought of himself.”The deadliest sin to Stacton, however, is moral cowardice combined with blind, hungry status-seeking, as epitomized by Stanton. After the secretary delivers his much-quoted deathbed eulogy for the fallen Lincoln (“Now he belongs to the ages”), the author dares to one-up it with an ominous prediction of gathering change (“He was the last of the old men”). It’s in such verdicts that Stacton gives his meaning to the historical allegory.