The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time: Decoding History’s Unsolved Mysteries, by Brad Meltzer

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Brad Meltzer, and Workman Publishing Company for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

One would think that I might tire reading about conspiracies, as we are in the midst of some doozies in the form of COVID-19 and the 2020 US Presidential Election. That being said, when I noticed Brad Meltzer was putting something together, I could not help myself. A longtime fan of Metlzer’s fiction work, I was eager to see what he would uncover, which might prove to be highly entertaining and easier to digest, while still being non-fiction. Likely pleasing to many who love conspiracies, but perhaps a little too primer for my liking.

Brad Meltzer has spread himself out greatly over the last number of years, including a television project called Decoded, which explores conspiracy theories. This book is almost a published account of ten of the largest conspiracies that Meltzer and his team discovered. They look at John Wilkes Booth’s life post- Lincoln assassination, a supposed gold cache still hidden throughout the US as part of a Confederate stockpile, and even the truth behind what’s actually going on in Fort Knox. Meltzer and his team offer some interesting theories, seeking to balance them out for everyone to feel appeased, without getting too meaty in their analysis. Tossing out a few more, which include Roswell and Area 51, as well as the JFK Assassination, Meltzer and his team seek to win over a larger audience by pulling back the proverbial curtain and tossing out many ideas that could hold some truth to them. Interesting, for sure, but not what I would call a compelling read for me.

While I have never had an issue with Brad Meltzer and his writing, I may stick to his fiction going forward. While I love his inquisitive mind and how he could likely weave it into a great piece of fiction, I found this too ‘made for television’ to really hold my attention. It read almost like a script for one of his shows (admittedly, I have not seen it, so I cannot speak with confidence). The theories are sound and the proof seems plausible, but this is a primer and I needed more meat. I have been forced to digest so many conspiracies of late (see above) that I want proof and not just supposition. Presented well, this will appeal to those who have a strong love of Meltzer’s television work and I applaud him for targeting his audience. For me, just not a stellar piece.

Kudos, Mr. Meltzer, for a great effort and some significant work. I hope many find something they enjoyed herein.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Lincoln Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill America’s 16th President—and Why It Failed, by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

Nine stars

In their second collaborative piece about a little-known assassination plot on a president, Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch turn to one of the most beloved—or hated, depending on your outlook—men ever to ascend to the presidency, Abraham Lincoln. Little known by many at the time of his election, Lincoln was not one to shy away from controversy for his strong anti-slavery views. He toppled favourites to win the Republican nomination and then entered a presidential fight that was drawn along more than state or party lines, woven into the fabric of a still adolescent America. As Meltzer and Mensch illustrate, there was trouble brewing before the ballots were cast, but once Lincoln won, those who did not support him came out in droves. Of those who sought to keep slavery intact and reacted with the most vigour was a group called the Knights of the Golden Circle. This covert group had plans to remove the man and rebalance the American political situation before Lincoln could official spend a day in office, during a stop in Baltimore. While there have been numerous presidential assassination attempts and successes—Lincoln included—none had been successfully plotted or executed by a group on a president-elect. As news of the Knights plan leaked, a little known detective agency was brought in to help foil the plot and keep the president from being pushed into the crosshairs. This is the story of the Knights, their plot, and how it was stymied by some quick thinking. With wonderful detail and quotes from all parties involved, Meltzer and Mensch keep the reader feeling right in the thick of things of this situation that has barely—if ever—made mention in any history books. Recommended to those who love a good political drama that’s steeped in history and intrigue, as well as the reader who loves learning about some of the parts of American history that are not readily seen in every school primer text.

I have long loved the work of Brad Meltzer and am thoroughly impressed with the work that he does alongside Josh Mensch. Some bemoan that the book is too outlandish, though I think the fact that this was a real event and not something pulled from the fictional archives of a stellar writer—of which Meltzer surely is—makes it all the more exciting. Laying the groundwork, the authors provide the reader with some backstories on all the key characters involved in the situation, including a few about whom I knew nothing before reading this book. With this and a healthy dose of the political situation at the time, the reader can see the developing plot to kill Lincoln during his ride towards Washington for the inauguration in early March 1861. The details of the story are clear and flow so well, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat, as one would expect in a piece of well-crafted fiction, though this is surely steeped in reality. The authors use a great narrative style that removes much of the stuffy nature that can be found in recounting historical happenings without losing the importance of the events being shared. With a mix of short and longer chapters, the reader can learn what they need to without getting bogged down in too much minutiae, though the information was plentiful on each page. The eventual assassination plot and its execution by the likes of John Wilkes Booth dominate the history texts, but Meltzer and Mensch bring to life this earlier attempt to shed some light on just how hated Lincoln and his beliefs were to many within the country, as well as to the extent to which parts of the American public were happy to see their as-yet official president killed and left as an asterisk in the history texts. No president will match the character and actions of Abraham Lincoln, though some will try to spin it to make their megalomaniacal ego glow even more!

Kudos, Messers. Meltzer and Mensch, for this refreshing look at America on the brink and one of its leaders who dodged a literal bullet to effect change.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

Nine stars

The time during America’s Revolutionary War was anything but peaceful, as many history books have explained over the years. When Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch came together to pen this book, they sought not only to explore some of the more confrontational aspects of the period, but also to uncover a little-known (read: documented) conspiracy against George Washington that seeped almost to the core of the Continental Army. The book opens by exploring some of the early goings-on within the colonies as they sought to band together in order to toss off the yoke of their British oppressors. In the early days of the Continental Congress, one man stood out amongst all the delegates, a former military officer from Virginia, George Washington. Chosen to lead the Continental Army, Washington began preparing for what would surely be a major campaign on many fronts. While some of the colonial areas were easily swayed by Continental sentiment, there were large pockets of Loyalists, those who stayed true to King and Country. One of these pockets was New York, where the Colonial Governor, William Tryon, was prepared to fight in order to hold onto power. Washington, surrounded by an elite group of soldiers called the Life Guards, sought to use all the force at his disposal while being protected, hoping to unseat Tryon and push forward with overtaking New York. As the authors explore, even when Tryon was forced to flee into exile, plots to disrupt and remove Washington from his position of power began. Working to infiltrate the Continental Army commenced, creating turncoats out of those who took up arms against the King, and a plot to remove Washington took shape. All the while, the Continental Congress created a secret committee to explore these whispers, in hopes of finding those who were conspiring and bringing them to justice. It would seem that even those closest to Washington might have been involved in turning against him, even before the formal Declaration of Independence was signed and sent to the British. Just how deep did the conspiracy go and what were the plans if Washington were caught? Meltzer and Mensch dazzle the reader with details and possible plans, as well as how the conspiracy was dismantled and its plotters brought from out of the shadows. A wonderful read for those who enjoy colonial history at the time of the Revolutionary Wars, as well as readers with an interest in political schemes.

I have long been a fan of Brad Meltzer’s work and picked this book up in order to read another of his historical thrillers. It was only when I started reading that I came to understand that this was a piece of non-fiction. It is written in such a way that the reader can fully absorb the impact of the plotting without drowning in too much detail. Meltzer and Mensch lay the groundwork effectively, offering some biographical pieces on the key players, before delving into the core of the story that shows how both sides were keen on pushing forward and removing those in positions of authority. While Washington was apparently in imminent danger on many occasions, he kept his eye on the prize and sought not to peer over his shoulder at every turn. The various plots and conspiracies evolved effectively throughout the narrative, coming to a head as the story builds. Even in the closing chapters, the authors posit what might have been had the conspiracy succeeded and how might present day America be different. While this is surely alternate history, it is interesting to wonder and surmise. With short chapters, the authors offer repeated lures to pull the reader into the middle of the story and offers little-known (to me at least) insights into the attempts to remove Washington, at times plots to kidnap, but also whispers of more violent means. The smooth-flowing narrative keeps the reader enthralled and entertained as they learn some of facts that have been buried in footnotes, letters, and journals. Not to be missed by those who love learning about historical events buried within larger narratives well-documented in tomes.

Kudos, Messrs. Meltzer and Mensch, for holding my attention throughout. I was pleased to learn so much while being entertained, as I am in the fiction I have come to know and love.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

The Escape Artist, by Brad Meltzer

Eight stars

Brad Meltzer is back with another thriller to appease his adult fans. With a story that dazzles and characters whose lives enrich the storytelling, the wait for this gem seems justifiable. Jim “Zig” Zigarowski works as a civilian mortician at the Dover Air Force Base, having seen much during his long career. After a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, the bodies begin their return for final preparation before being released to the families. While one of the victims is the Librarian of Congress, a close friend of POTUS, Zig is most interested in Sergeant Nola Brown. Memories from his past flood back as Zig remembers Zola from an excursion with his now-deceased daughter. Nola was a very quiet girl with a troubled past, though Zig remembers her heroics above all else. Zig’s investigation and preparation of the body seems to raise some red flags and a rushed identification leaves him to wonder if someone is trying to participate in a cover-up back in Alaska. Add to that, a note in the body’s stomach and Zig is sure that Nola is not the one before him, but why?! When the body is intercepted at Dover and the actual Nora emerges, Zig realises that there is a significant mystery surrounding the plane crash and those on the passenger list, including three individuals whose names have ties to the famous Harry Houdini. With Zig and Nora working together, they discover that something called Operation: Bluebook, which could be the impetus for the crash. The original Bluebook refers to a plan hatched by Houdini when he travelled into towns with his own team in the audience, garnering information to be used on stage. Learning that both their lives remain in danger, Zig and Nora work to uncover what’s been going on before they suffer the same fate as the others. Tying the clues together and discovering the Houdini inference, Zig and Nora try to remain one step ahead of this US Government covert sleight of hand. Another well-crafted novel by Meltzer that is recommended to his fans and those who want a little magic with their reading experience.

I have long enjoyed Brad Meltzer and his writing style, though I did sigh and shook my head when he turned to writing more for children. However, looking back on it, the anticipation of his thriller novels builds and this one was worth the wait. I am eager to see what else he has in store for Zig in the coming years, should this novel receive the praise it is due. It would appear that the Zig character is the start to a new series, which has some real potential, mixing civilian and military aspects quite effectively and Meltzer’s attention to detail is a significant help. Meltzer does a wonderful job creating a thorough backstory for Zig, especially as it relates to his daughter and the tragedy that befell her. The reader can feel a strong connection, while also being at ease with Zig’s current position as a mortician. Nola Brown’s character receives significant backstory throughout this novel as well, usually in the form of flashback chapters, which flesh out some of the nuances in her personality and explain that sense of independence. Her development in a ‘foster home’ becomes a central thread, as does her development into the woman she began when Zig met her again. There is surely much to be said about Nola and her resilience. Secondary characters are peppered throughout, which provides the reader with a pathway for better understanding how the story will develop. Meltzer adds his own flavour to these folks, injecting historical aspects as well as his own unique characteristics. The story and its delivery are stellar and keep the reader connected throughout, weaving together a few storylines to keep the reader guessing until the very end. Meltzer uses his love of history and intricate detail to fuel this piece, educating the reader as often as possible while not burdening them with too many intricacies that might slow things down. Well-paced chapters and those powerful flashbacks of Nola provide all that the reader needs to feel drawn to the story while hoping for another one in the near future. This is a successful reemergence for Meltzer, whose adult fans are surely pleased to see him back!

Kudos, Mr. Meltzer, for another wonderful piece of writing. I can only hope you’ll capture the attention of your fans and remind them why you are top of your genre.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: