Best-selling author Brad Meltzer comes to Free Library

Posted: January 24, 2013

It is not often, if ever, that a New York Times best-selling author has his work praised by a former President of the United States, yet the promotional blurbs for "The Fifth Assassin", the new mystery/thriller by Brad Meltzer, includes gushing praise of Meltzer by George H.W. Bush, who states, "All of Brad's books are a fascinating read. He is a great storyteller who keeps us all on the edge of our seats".

In a show of bi-partisanship, Meltzer has also had President Bill Clinton help him with research for his novels. He'll discuss their insights and anecdotes when he reads from his new novel, "The Fifth Assassin", tonight at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 7:30-9 p.m. He'll also answer questions and sign copies of the book, which will be available for sale.

Why the Free Library and not a bookstore for the signing?

"The Free Library does great events!", exclaimed Meltzer.

"The Fifth Assassin" - the second installment in what Meltzer describes as the Culper Ring Trilogy - tells the tale of archivist Beecher White's attempts to track down a serial killer who is recreating the crimes of the only four successful Presidential assassins in history: John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz and Lee Harvey Oswald.

The book's broader, more sophisticated premise is that throughout history, these four men have been branded as lone wolves, but it becomes clear to Beecher that all four assassins were secretly working together. Beecher then tries to determine what their purpose is, who they work for and why they are planning to kill the current President. (The book is set a few years in the future when Obama has left office and the fictional President Wallace holds power.)

"I have met all the recent Presidents", says Meltzer. "I've met Clinton, I've met Obama, I didn't meet George W. Bush but I did meet Laura. Clinton and George H.W. Bush have helped me with my books. President George H.W. Bush let me ask him some of the most macabre questions I've ever asked. I'll always ask him about little details of White House life that only he and a few others could possibly know. But asking a President about the hidden staircase in the White House is different than asking him about what it's like to know that someone's out there planning your death."

Meltzer's research into the nation's history led him to all sorts of places in Washington D.C., like the relatively little-known National Museum of Health and Medicine, which houses things like . . . well, let Meltzer tell the story.

"Thanks to (my) TV show (the History Channel's "Decoded"), I get the craziest e-mail," he said. "Once I had someone bring the Holy Grail to one of my book signings. The real Holy Grail, he insisted. So for 'The Fifth Assassin.' I wasn't surprised when one of my longtime readers told me that I needed to come to a museum that almost no one knew about. I asked him what they had there. What made it so important? Then he asked me, 'How would you like to see pieces of Abraham Lincoln's skull, the bullet that killed him and the bones of John Wilkes Booth? We have all these items. It's like the Smithsonian of body parts.' You better believe I went there!"

The origin of playing cards and suits also play a large part in the story.

"We forget just how many things are in front of us every day, but we don't know where they came from," he said. "In the case of playing cards, we see hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades. But those symbols were picked for a reason: Hearts were the sign of the Church, diamonds were arrowheads representing vassals and archers; clubs were husbandmen or farmers; and spades were the points of lances and, by extension, the King. They represented the four facets of society."

"That's what I love about history - you see where our reality comes from," he said.

That includes, evidence of some real connections between the four presidential assassins.

"Officially, there have been over two dozen attempts to murder the President of the United States. Only four have been successful," Meltzer said. "Of the four men that succeeded, here's what they had in common: Three of the four weren't drinkers. None of them did drugs. All of them were surprisingly - and outrageously - neat. And NONE OF THEM was ever identified as a troublemaker. Until, of course, the moment they pulled the trigger."

"Beyond that", he continued, they each planned their act for weeks and were all blessed with patience. But the key ingredient in their success that could not be stopped was all four were men with a cause."

"Here's their real connection, though: You can divide assassins into two categories - HOWLERS and HUNTERS", he said. "The howlers threaten us by sending scary notes and calling in bomb threats, but the good news is they rarely follow through. They just want attention, so for them howling and making noise is enough. It's different with hunters. Hunters ACT ON IT. They research, prepare, plot - and follow that path to a goal. But howlers aren't interested in hunting - and hunters aren't interested in howling. Needless to say, from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, all four assassins were hunters."

With all this research into this nation's fascinating past, Meltzer said he did do some research in Philadelphia. For example, he came across an old Eagles logo that looks like a Phoenix so hopefully the team will rise again.

As for Philadelphia Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, "I decided there was enough good stuff there to use in another book."

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