The Fifth Assassin

An interview with political thriller novelist Brad Meltzer and a review of his latest book, “The Fifth Assassin”.

Brad Meltzer has been responsible for some of the best thrillers I have read, in prose and in comic books. He’s also haunting my television screen as the host of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on the History Channel. Now he’s revisiting the world of bestseller The Inner Circle with the follow up, The Fifth Assassin.

Beecher White, our hero, returns with more political intrigue, more hidden history and more excitement. While The Inner Circle had Beecher introduced and inducted into The Culper Ring, The Fifth Assassin has him now working as one of its members. Beecher, and fellow archivist Tot, along with some known (and anonymous) Culper members on in a race against time to stop a killer bent on recreating the four presidential assassinations from American history, and possibly a fifth.

It’s tough to call this book a sequel. It felt a lot more like a continuation of The Inner Circle. Not only did many of the characters reappear in this book, but several of the plot points also translate into this story. It’s a great way to set up a series (which is what I hope this is turning out to be). You get to see a favorite character evolve from book to book, and the books tie together in more ways than just having common characters.

Beecher isn’t your garden variety Action Hero. Most of his weapons are housed between his ears. Being an archivist, he does lots of research and has excellent recall of things he’s seen and read. There’s probably a lot of Meltzer in Beecher, as the novel itself was well researched. Many Washington DC locales play an important part in the story. Some of them I had never heard of. I was burning up Wikipedia as I read this book, learning more about The Foundry Church and Walter Reed (Yeah, you think you know Walter Reed? You don’t.) and so many other things. It’s one of the reasons Meltzer’s books are so much fun to read. On one level, you can just enjoy the story for what it is. On another level, you can take what you have read and dig a little deeper. It’s amazing what history is out there if you know where to look!

One of the gifts Meltzer has in his writing style is that his pacing is excellent. The feeling of imminent danger is on every page, and yet, he does not for one second sacrifice character development. In The Fifth Assassin, this talent really shines. Beecher is a fully realized character, capable of growth. Clementine, Beecher’s childhood girlfriend, has changed so much since the previous novel. I went back and forth several times on how I felt about her. President Wallace is a complex man with a dark past, and a hunger for power. He’s also a President, wanting to do what he thinks is right for his country.

I leant my copy to a history buff friend of mine. He’s never read a comic book in his life, not was he familiar with Meltzer’s writing. He came back to me wanting to know what other Meltzer books to read. “All of them,” I replied.

(Full confession here: Beecher White is my favorite Brad Meltzer creation. He’s an archivist, which is a lot like a librarian. He loves his research and being along with countless historical documents. He uses his job to educate himself. He learns something new every day. He’s an ordinary guy who has been chosen to do extraordinary things. I like to think of him as Hal Jordan. Instead of a Green Lantern ring finding him, the Culper Ring did.)

Speaking of Green Lantern, Meltzer knows how to do a fanboy proud. I love the way he sprinkles his plot with names and/or places of comic book references. If Meltzer’s stories are about secrets, and codes, his writing is a code for his fans.

This is not to say you have to be a comic nerd or have read Meltzer’s other books to enjoy The Fifth Assassin. I lent my copy to a history buff friend of mine. He’s never read a comic book in his life, not was he familiar with Meltzer’s writing. He came back to me wanting to know what other Meltzer books to read.

“All of them,” I replied.

Brad Meltzer Q&A

Randall Hamm: This is the first time your main character has carried over from another book (The Inner Circle). What made you decide to continue Beecher’s story?

Brad Meltzer: For most books, the character’s story is really over at the end.  Beecher was always designed to be different.  As a hero, Beecher is still evolving.  Beecher isn’t the best fighter.  He’s not the best with guns.  But what he is…he’s smart.  Beecher is smarter than you.  And smarter than me.  And I love that people have responded to him because he’s not about biceps and brawn.  He’s about brain.

R: Are there characters from your other books you would like to revisit?

B: I still think about a few of them.  From The Tenth Justice.  And especially The First Counsel and The Millionaires.  They come and visit from time to time.

R: Presidential assassinations are a bit darker than your previous books. What made you decide this was the subject of your next book?

B: Usually I’m trying to find out about the secret bomb shelter below the White House.  With this, I spent two years knee-deep in assassins and Presidential deaths.  I’m like the Harold & Maude of 1600 Pennsylvania.  I’m not sure it’s healthy to be that obsessed with the obsessed.  But I just couldn’t take my eyes off the assassins.  Though I will say, I also found the secret tunnels below Camp David.  When I found that, I found the ending of the book.

R: The historical research you go into for your books (and TV show Decoded) is now legendary. Was it more difficult to gain access to certain areas and personnel considering the subject matter?

B: I think it’d be really hard to do with a first book.  I couldn’t have written this book without some major trust from certain sources.  I owe them big for this one.

R: Do you feel that Beecher is different in “The Fifth Assassin” than he is in “The Inner Circle?” 

B: Absolutely.  By design.  The Inner Circle is Beecher’s birth.  This is him learning to grow up.  The goal was to always let him evolve more in each book.

R: Your two Heroes books are incredibly inspirational. Are you considering any other non-fiction works?

B: I am.  More news soon.

R: Your readers are incredibly loyal. Many readers of your comic book works have picked up your prose and vice versa, potentially exposing them to genres and authors they might never have read otherwise. How do you feel about helping readers cross that “genre divide?”

B: I love every reader who has taken a chance and tried something new with us.  We’re in this together — and I owe them for that too.

R: How has Decoded influenced your writing?

B: You mean besides making me more paranoid?

R: Are there any comic book characters on your writing wishlist? Any story ideas with DC Comics New 52?

B: It’s just a function of time.  My dance card is filled for a bit.

R: And of course, the obligatory, What is your next project?

B: The sequel to The Fifth Assassin, of course.  See you in the Archives.


About Randall Ham

Randy Ham has spent over 20 years in the book business, doing everything from unpacking shipments to organizing city wide reads. In his spare time, Randy likes to (what else?) read.

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