The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

The President and the detective…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Abraham Lincoln has won the Presidential election and now, in early 1861, is about to undertake the journey from his home in Springfield, Illinois, to Washington for his inauguration. But these are troubled times, and the journey is complicated because of all of the different railroad companies that own parts of the route. One of the company owners hears of a plot to destroy his railroad to prevent Lincoln making it to Washington, and so he calls in the already famous private detective, Allan Pinkerton. But when Pinkerton starts to investigate, he becomes convinced that there is a deeper plot in the planning – to assassinate Lincoln before he is inaugurated. This book tells the story of Lincoln’s journey, the plot against him, and Pinkerton’s attempt to ensure his safe arrival in Washington.

It’s written very much in the style of a true crime book, although it has aspects that fall as much into the category of history. Stashower focuses on three main aspects: a biographical look at Pinkerton and the development of his detective agency; the rising tensions in the still-new nation that would soon break out into full scale civil war; and Lincoln’s journey, and the plot against him.

Route of Lincoln’s whistle-stop inaugural trip 1861

The first section is mostly about Pinkerton, a man who started out as a political activist in his native Glasgow in Scotland until, perhaps to escape the authorities there, he emigrated to America with his young wife. I grew up knowing tales of the great American detective Pinkerton and his agents, but hadn’t realised he was born and lived only three or so miles away from where I spent my childhood years, so that was an added point of interest for me; plus the authenticity shown in the little time that the book spends on Scotland and the political situation there (about which I know a fair amount) convinced me of the author’s historical reliability. Once the story moves to America, Stashower shows us how this journeyman cooper gradually became a detective for hire, and then grew a business of many agents able to work undercover in all levels of society. Stashower discusses Pinkerton’s methods,  his policy that “the ends justify the means”, and the clients who called on him to prevent crimes if he could, or else bring the criminals to justice after the event.

The logo that gave rise to the expression, “private eye”

Pinkerton was also ahead of his time in recognising the value of women detectives, though it was actually a woman, Kate Warne, who convinced him of this when she persuaded him to hire her. She went on to become one of his most trusted agents, and played a major role in the events covered by the book, all of which Stashower recounts most interestingly. If any biographers are out there looking for a subject, I’d love to read a full bio of her life!

The focus then switches between Lincoln and Pinkerton, the one preparing for his journey, the other setting up his agents to infiltrate the pro-Secessionists in Baltimore, where the threat to Lincoln seemed to be greatest. The political background is woven into these two stories, with Stashower assuming some prior knowledge of the events leading up to the civil war on the part of his readers, but ensuring that he gives enough so that people, like me, whose understanding of that period is superficial and even sketchy don’t get left behind.

Stashower tells us of the various people surrounding Lincoln, and their differing opinions on how he should meet the threat. Given that he had won the election on a minority of the vote, it was felt to be important that he should let people see and hear him, trying to win them over before he took office. This meant that the train journey became serpentine, looping and doubling back so that he could visit as many places as possible. To make matters worse from a security point of view, his advisors and he thought it was necessary to put out an itinerary in advance, so that the people, and unfortunately therefore the plotters, would know when and where they could get close to him. To get to Washington, he would have to go through Baltimore – a state then known as Mobtown and one that was considered likely to go over to the Confederacy side in the event of war. Despite the fact that we all know that Lincoln survived for a few more years, Stashower manages to build a real atmosphere of tension – we may know the outcome, but I certainly didn’t know how or even if he would make it through Baltimore safely.

Pinkerton (left) with Lincoln and Major General John A. McClernand at Antietam in1862

Meantime, Pinkerton and his agents take us undercover deep into the conspiracy to stop Lincoln, showing how for many of those involved it was really a talking game, but for a few fanatics, it was a real plot. Pinkerton’s task was a double one – to trap the plotters while also managing Lincoln’s safe transit through this dangerous city. I’ll say no more, so that I won’t spoil the tension for anyone who, like me, doesn’t know this story. But towards the end I found it as tense as a thriller and raced through the last chapters with a need to know how it all worked out.

Daniel Stashower

Finally, Stashower gives a short summary of what happened afterwards to the various people involved – the people who travelled with Lincoln, Pinkerton and his agents, and some of the plotters. He also shows how conflicting versions of the story make getting at the facts difficult – Pinkerton and some of Lincoln’s people didn’t see eye to eye either at the time or afterwards, and each side perhaps embellished the facts to suit their own purposes. Nothing really changes, eh? Except maybe it’s a bit easier to travel from Illinois to Washington now.

A thoroughly enjoyable book – well written, interesting and informative, giving a lot of insight into this troubled period just before the Civil War. Highly recommended!

Thanks, Margot – you know my tastes well. 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

26 thoughts on “The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower

  1. I can’t tell you how happy I am that you liked this so well, FIctionFan! I couldn’t agree more that it is an excellent book, and Stashower certainly did his research. And yet, as you say, he writes in a very accessible way, so that one gets caught up in the story – well, this one, anyway. I agree with you, too, that I would love to learn more about Kate Warne. There are several biographies of her out there. A few I’ve seen are intended for children, but there are some for adults, too. I can’t vouch for them, as I haven’t take the time to read them. But I know there’s good stuff out there for you to check out with all of your spare reading time… 😉 Perhaps your feline Book Acquisition Service can look some of them up…

    • I really did, Margot – thank you! I found all the stuff about Pinkerton fascinating. I knew of him, but didn’t know any of the detail, and I thought Stashower did very well at incorporating enough of his biography into this without weighing it down too much. And I loved Kate Warne! Oh, I must get T&T on the case, then! It reminded me of the book I read recently about Maud West, the London-based female detective, and it would be fun to compare them. Poor old Lincoln came a poor third behind these two characters for me – haha! I think I’m off politicians a bit at the moment… 😉

    • Thank you! 😀 I know very little about Lincoln except the most well-known highlights of his life and death, but I have an excuse, being Scottish. 😉 But this was certainly a fascinating look at a bit of his history I didn’t know and an intriguing introduction to that time…

  2. I’ve never actually heard of Pinkerton, but I have always been interested in this period of history, so I think I would enjoy it.

    • That’s so odd, because I thought Pinkerton was a household name and yet when I mentioned this book to a young American of my acquaintance, he hadn’t heard of him either. Now I don’t know why I did! Maybe there was a movie or something when I was young. But one of his agents shows up in a Sherlock Holmes story – The Valley of Fear – so it may have been that since I read them when I was pretty young…

  3. I’m glad this book was recommended to you and that you loved it. What a great premise! Thank you for a great review! I’ve read other books that mentioned this detective agency, so this book seems a must-read.

    • I’ve always been a fan of Pinkerton without knowing much about him, so it was great fun to learn more about an actual case he was involved in, especially such an important one. Yes, Margot knows my tastes very well! 😀

  4. Okay… just making sure I understand correctly… this is historical fiction, albeit accurate in its history. I was think of it for my SIL, but he really prefers non-fiction. On the other hand, I might enjoy it. 🙂

    I remember reading a biography of Pinkerton when I was a child.

    • No, it’s non-fiction, and probably should be classed as history, but it read more like true crime to me – not at all academic and with that slight sense of thriller about it. So I’d think your SIL would probably enjoy it if he likes non-fiction. But you might too!

      I’ve always known about Pinkerton’s detectives but I don’t really know why now. But this is the first time I’ve read about his real life rather than the legend, and I found it fascinating… 😀

    • I knew vaguely about Pinkerton too but had no idea he was involved with Lincoln or later in the Civil War in espionage! Because this is written in a non-academic way, it’s an easier read than a lot of heavyweight history, though just as well researched, I thought. Great stuff – if you try it at some point I hope you enjoy it! 😀

  5. Great review on a fascinating topic. I remember you mentioning this book in an earlier post, but other than that I’ve never heard about this plot against Lincoln. If only all history was written in this captivating thriller style, perhaps I would have paid more attention in history lessons in school.

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I love when history is written in a non-academic way like this – it’s so much easier to read and somehow I remember it better when it’s written more excitingly. I had an inspirational history teacher at school who used to make us act out riots and being a child working down a mine and so on, and it stuck much better than reading about them in a straight history book… 😀

      • I wish, I had a history teacher like that. History was one of the very few subjects in school, I wasn’t completely taken with. Part of it was the teacher I suspect, but perhaps I don’t have a natural inclination for the past either. I’ve always lived very much in the present. Strangely enough, I have come to love historical fiction.

        • I’m part of a family of historians. I’m the only one of my four siblings who didn’t have a history degree, but I did study it at Uni level for a couple of years. So reading and talking about history books has always seemed a normal part of all our lives. I blame the eldest… 😉

  6. This sounds fascinating. I had no idea that Pinkerton had been born in the Gorbals which is close to where my father was born.

    • Nor me! And I grew up just a few miles away in Pollok. I wonder if that’s why I’d heard of Pinkerton – I thought everyone had, but it appears not. I did find his story fascinating – and Kate Warne’s… 😀

  7. This sounds fascinating. I began reading this review thinking novel, true crime, which detective series does Pinkerton feature in? Soon to be disabused of course. It seems to cover a much wider sweep than initially suggested too. Another one for the list …. 🤷

    • I love this kind of non-academic history books that kinda combines different aspects of the time. I enjoyed the Lincoln stuff, but it was really Pinkerton and his agents who made the book for me, especially Kate Warne!

  8. Officially on my TBR list now! Have you watched the Pinkerton show on Netflix? I’ve been meaning to watch it. The Pinkerton’s have interested me since I watched another show that mentioned them.

  9. Sounds like another good read – when will they ever end? Also an excuse to share my favourite Warner Brothers cartoon line
    “Lincoln dead? I didn’t even know he was sick!”
    Have a great weekend FF!

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