Walker's Bookshelf

In-Depth Book Review: Manhunt

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer tells the story of the murder of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent search for those involved in his death.

The characters and plot in Manhunt are quickly revealed. The central characters around which the entire story revolves—Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth—are introduced within the first four pages. They are quickly established as having diametrically opposed outlooks on America’s future—Lincoln embraces one of hope and reconciliation while Booth seeks a chance to avenge the South’s defeat. By the end of the book’s Prologue, Booth has vowed that Lincoln will never live to deliver another speech.

Manhunt moves along at a brisk pace because, at its core, it is a “race against time” story. There are two competing stories present in Manhunt, one is Booth’s race to escape his Union pursuers; the other is the U.S. governments race to capture those who conspired to assassinate President Lincoln. The book’s pace is not slowed by the fact that there is more description than dialogue. Swanson’s use of language creates a “you are there” feeling and inserts the reader directly into the story. While Manhunt is written in a very detailed manner, it is not densely written. Swanson makes effective use of original sources—letters, manuscripts, affidavits, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books, and memoirs.

The story is very conventional and has a straight-line plot—the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators. Save for the book’s final chapter, prologue, and epilogue, all of the action in the story occurs between April 14th and April 26th 1865. The primary characters in the story—Booth, his fellow conspirators, and the Union Army pursuers, are constantly reacting to events around them. This helps the story move forward at a quick pace. Despite knowing the ultimate outcome of the story—the capture of all of Lincoln’s assassination conspirators, Swanson creates a compelling storyline in which the reader is kept on the edge of their seat wondering if Booth is ultimately going to be able to escape.

Each of the characters in Manhunt is vividly written and fully drawn, albeit in a dispassionate manner. Their thoughts and actions are presented in rich, lifelike detail. Both Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth are depicted as immensely talented, yet tragic figures whose lives intersected one fateful night at Ford’s Theatre. Both inspired tremendous feelings of love and hate as well as fierce loyalty and dedication. Each was surrounded by people that idolized them and who would go to great lengths to support and defend them. The secondary characters in Manhunt are made up of these very loyalists—individuals dedicated to either finding Lincoln’s killer or dedicated to helping Booth escape the Union dragnet. Each character is presented with all their complexities and contradictions fully intact. Because of this, it is easy for the reader to identify with the characters feelings and emotions. It allows the reader to stand in their shoes.

Manhunt reads like a well-crafted suspense novel. The suspense gradually builds over the course of the book. The reader is constantly kept on edge about whether or not Booth and his fellow conspirators will ever be caught. Manhunt is also filled with the type of lush historical detail that makes the reader feel like they are back in 1865. While Manhunt tells the story of Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent search for his killer, the tone is never bleak or overly dark. Rather, Manhunt is written in the type of compelling manner that leads readers to want to continue turning page after page in order to see what is going to happen next. Manhunt is both colorful and complex in tone, which makes it a very enjoyable read.