Rediscoveries: David Stacton and The Judges of the Secret Court

David Stacton (1923-1968) is probably the best American novelist you’ve never heard of. At least I’d never heard of him till a couple of months back when the New York Review of Books republished his 1961 novel, The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth, and one of my book clubs read it.

I don’t think I’ve ever written the phrase “tour de force” in a blog post before, but it is the right term to describe this novel.  Before opening this book, I had close to zero interest in Booth or Lincoln’s assassination, but now it’s one more topic on the long list of things I want to know more about.  How does Stacton accomplish this?

Isaiah Berlin might have called Stacton a hedgehog among novelists; he does one big thing extraordinarily well. He is a master of the “free indirect style,” also known as “close third person,” in which the author assumes the point of view of a particular character while telling the action in the third person. As James Wood explains the technique in How Fiction Works: “On the one hand, the author wants to have his or her own words, wants to be the master of a personal style; on the other hand, narrative bends toward its characters and their habits of speech.”

Photo of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln.

Since Henry James popularized this way of telling a story, it has become predominant in the High Lit Tradition of fiction, but none of have attempted it so massively as Stacton, who brings his ventriloquist’s voice and wonderful eye for the telling detail to perhaps 20 characters over the course of this novel.

Here, for example, is John Wilkes Booth girding himself for his big moment the night Lincoln is shot. Note also the quick shifts into the bartender’s mind:

Booth was also watching the hands of a clock. Somehow this evening his habitual gestures did not satisfy him as they usually did. The bar was Taltavul’s. Of the two bars which flanked the theatre, this was the one he preferred, for the other got mostly actors, who did not pay him as much deference as workmen did.

Brandy was not quite what he needed now. He ordered a set up of whiskey and water instead. Taltavul thought that unusual and would remember it.

Booth had the eerie feeling that he was doing everything for the last time. He could not shake it. No doubt it was because an assassination, unlike a performance, is a unique act. It cannot be repeated.

There were too many drunks in the bar tonight. One of them lurched against him, lifted a glass and said, “You’ll never be the actor your father was.”

That jolted him. It was ages since he had thought of his father, that benevolent madman with the sagging calves and flopping belly. Junius Brutus the Elder may have played country squire like Farmer George, but it was he the Booths had to thank for their illegitimacy, hushed up though the matter was. One could only be a gentleman by forgetting all about him.

The thought of that firmed Booth’s purpose. “When I leave the stage, I will be the most famous man in America,” he said.

“Hell, for all you act on it, I thought you’d left it months ago,” said the drunk. “Croak something for us.”

Taltavul knew how to handle a drunk. He handled this one fast. But it was funny, come to think of it, but it was true, Booth had not acted for months. And what was all that blarney about leaving the stage, anyhow?

To his relief, Booth said nothing more, drained his glass and left the bar.

Map of Lincoln's route home

Route Lincoln's funeral train took from DC to Illinois.

Stacton’s chameleon-like shifts in point of view and his skill at impersonating each character create a deep sense of psychological realism. Each character sees the world a kilter through his own solipsistic prism, just as in life.  For John Wilkes Booth, this means a powerfully credible portrait of a vain, self-pitying, glory-hungry performer, wannabe gentleman, ladies’ charmer, and fantasist who expects to be acclaimed by the nation for his deed.

Since the novel closely follows the historical record of events, I knew what would happen before I began reading and yet Stacton managed to make me feel a terrific sense of suspense. The suspense was not along the conventional line – what will happen to Booth? But it was, What will Booth be thinking when the Union solders corner him in a barn; how will he rationalize his own death?

Drawing of David StactonStacton himself was an eccentric figure who wrote many historical novels and also pulp fiction under various noms de plume. While he once made a Time magazine list of promising novelists, most of his works stayed in the ghetto of the genre writer and he never came close to the kind of fame contemporaries like John Updike and Philip Roth enjoyed. He died at 44 in Denmark.

The book’s intelligent introduction by novelist John Crowley is well worth reading to learn more of Stacton and his writing, but I’d recommend it only after you finish the novel. The story is marvelous enough without the lagniappe of a mystery-man biography.

6 Responses to Rediscoveries: David Stacton and The Judges of the Secret Court

  1. Washington Buckeye Sep 27, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Michael Dirda is a fan of The Judges of the Secret Court, which is how I heard about it. I agree that it’s a fascinating read, especially given everything that has gone on in America in the ten years since 9/11. Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, struck me as eerily reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney–a perfectly plausible heavy. Stacton’s “ventriloquism,” as you put it so nicely, is particularly effective, I thought, in his portrait of Mrs. Surratt, Stanton’s most innocent victim.

    There were a few places–no more than three or four–where I thought Stacton’s narrative voice was a little unconvincing. The narrator at one point refers to Stanton as a “coward,” but I thought it was one of those moments when the reader wants to say, “Show me, don’t tell me.” But that’s picking nits. Thanks, Ras.

    • Yes, WB, I too was struck by the eerie ability of Stacton in 1961 to channel the Dick Cheney mentality in the portrayal of Secretary of War Stanton and the manner in which he orchestrated the trial of those caught in Booth’s conspiracy net. I also agree that Stacton is most impressive at simulating the point of view of a great range of characters. The novel made me add the recent film The Conspirator (centered on Mrs. Surratt) to my Netflix list.

  2. Have ordered it. Thank you, Rasoir.

  3. Robert Nedelkoff Sep 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Ras, you’ll have spotted my name in the intro of the Judges reissue. This post is great – says more better about the book than several of the notices I’ve seen. Last year, for the benefit of the students in a course Charles Hill was teaching at Yale on The Fiction Of Washington – he had Judges on his syllabus – I wrote a pretty lengthy, detailed chronology of Stacton’s life. Will be happy to send this along. Cause it wouldn’t fit here.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Robert. Since I now am quite curious about David Stacton, I would love to check out your chronology of his life. I’ll be in touch via email.

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