On Secret Service

Written by John Jakes
Review by Marcia K. Matthews

On Secret Service is an informative read that will entertain both men and women. My husband took possession of the book the minute he saw it, and I could hardly get it back.

John Jakes tackles a difficult subject: the origin of the secret service in the United States during the Civil War. The omniscient narrator has a spare style: past tense, third person, devoted to characterization and action, not to description. We don’t feel immersed in the time period, but like we’re watching a movie at middle distance, a “medium shot.”

The novel is plot-driven in that we know that Abraham Lincoln will be assassinated. This unchangeable fact limits how effective a spy Lon Price can be. His efforts fall short. He makes mistakes. Far from the slick James Bond, he’s working at a time when substitution codes were state of the art. Like the newspaper ciphers of today, they can be cracked with a frequency table of the English alphabet.

Jakes has set himself a high level of difficulty in choosing a true-life event to lead up to, a climax known in advance. The four point-of-view characters engage us with their intersecting lives: Lon Price, the detective, loves Margaret Miller, Rebel spy, whose friend Hanna Siegel loves Confederate Major Fred Dasher. So many possibilities, so many missed opportunities. The author’s restraint and realism give his characters plenty of conflicts but little satisfaction.

The timespan from January 1861 to April 1865 saw the bloodiest war ever on US soil, and Jakes sets his scenes in the middle of the action, moving from Washington to Richmond to Savannah to New York. The author describes events in logical narrative with straightforward sentences. In a few paragraphs he achieves lyrical portraits, bringing to life President Lincoln in a casual encounter, and Rose Greenhow and Jefferson Davis, people I’ve always been curious about.

All four protagonists work as spies: Lon, in a progression from Pinkerton detective to secret agent; Margaret, as secessionist sympathizer drawn in by her notorious friend Rose; Hanna, who disguises herself as a soldier to see battle; and Fred, who works with the Southern conspirators, unaware they are plotting Lincoln’s assassination.

The theme is maintaining honor in war, while pursuing relationships that cause conflicting loyalties. In exploring this theme, Jakes maps the inner soul of America.