Tag Archives: James Swanson

Manhunt by James Swanson

7th February 2011

Back in October, I sat in on a fascinating panel at the Texas Book Festival, Literature on the Lam. There were four authors discussing their new nonfiction accounts of the likes of Al Capone, James Earl Ray, El Chapo, and John Wilkes Booth, and since then, I have wanted to read each of the books. I finally picked up Manhunt at the library last week and raced through it. Manhunt is the story of the assassination of Lincoln and the subsequent 12-day hunt for John Wilkes Booth.

I know what you’re thinking. “Blah blah blah, that was over a hundred years ago, blah blah blah, I already know what happened,” and yeah, you’d be correct. Lincoln still dies; John Wilkes Booth is still found.  The Union still wins. However, I would also tell you to stop your yapping and listen here because this book, start to finish, was riveting and eye opening as to the fullness of the act that took the life of one of America’s most-beloved figures.

The story is in the nuance, though, something Swanson teases out beautifully. For this is not just the story of two men, one, an enigmatic actor, handsome and debonair, loved by the ladies, and another, the noble President of the United States, destined to forever be frozen in the national mind in a series of moments none of us ever experienced. Manhunt is also the story of those characters history has forgotten until Swanson’s pen so deftly brings them back to life: Herold, a co-conspirator who cannot act against his assigned victim but who remains with Booth until the end; Edwin Stanton, secretary of war who takes control at Lincoln’s bedside, all while mourning his friend; Thomas Jones, known as The River Ghost, who gives Booth the means to get across the Potomac.

Swanson, too, humanizes John Wilkes Booth, and there are moments when Swanson nearly crosses the line between fascination and admiration. However, as the reader, it is also difficult to cheer for those hunting Booth – not because I agreed with Booth’s actions but because the author writes in such a way that you really don’t want Manhunt and the manhunt within the story to end. Swanson pieces together extensive primary source documents and accounts to create a truly stunning work of nonfiction, and as soon as possible, I will be picking up his newest book, Bloody Crimes, about Jefferson Davis’s escape and Lincoln’s funeral procession.

Read this one: immediately / asap / when you get a chance / if you’re bored

jenn aka picky girl

Related: Last year I read Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon, and it was a fascinating fictional account (but based on a true story) of the couple in the box seats with President Lincoln and the first lady. To say it piqued my interest is an understatement. Theirs was a tragic story set during an equally tragic time.

Texas Book Festival – Part Dos

20th October 2010

Saturday night, I was exhausted. Like, too tired to read, and I’m never too tired to read. I guess dancing at The Broken Spoke until midnight Friday night and then traipsing across the capitol ALL day on Saturday was a bit much for this gal. I mapped out Sunday’s events, watched some HGTV in the hotel (I don’t have cable, so this was thrilling) and crashed. Sunday found me refreshed and excited to get to my two panels:

Literature on the Lam

Moderated by Skip Hollinsworth of Texas Monthly and filmed by BookTV, I was really excited about this panel. Criminals fascinate me, and I was practically fused to my seat I was so enthralled. Malcolm Beith, Jonathan Eig, Hampton Sides, and James Swanson were all panelists.

Each has a new book out dealing with infamous criminals. James Swanson, who wrote Manhunt about John Wilkes Booth, has a new book out called Blood Crimes, which is about Jefferson Davis. Patricia Cornwell deemed Manhunt to be one of the top two true crime novels along with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Hampton Sides writes about James Earl Ray in Hellhound. Jonathan Eig’s new book Get Capone posits new theories of the life Al Capone. Finally, Malcolm Beith wrote The Last Narco, a book about El Chapo, organized crime leader in Mexico.

The panel started on a light-hearted note as Hollinsworth asked Eig how he switched from writing about baseball players to Al Capone. Eig said he thought long and hard and asked himself: “Who else used baseball bats?” Eig’s sense of humor was welcome on the panel, and I’m curious how much humor comes across in his book. He says Capone was really “a product of Prohibition” who otherwise may have driven a truck or stocked store shelves. He had a chance to rake in money, though, and he took it. The odd thing about Capone, according to Eig, is how willingly he accepted the infamy. He asked “what kind of person welcomes that sort of attention” and ended by saying, “We’ve all got a little bit of larceny in us.”

Sides and Swanson were much more serious, tackling topics of national sensitivity. When asked how easily they could shake off the people of whom they wrote, all the authors said they could not. Sides and Swanson are left with questions as both John Wilkes Booth and James Earl Ray left many unanswered questions.

I particularly felt for Malcolm Beith, as he seemed genuinely disturbed by El Chapo. He answered he would never shake the man off because of the horror of his crimes, at one time killing 300 people in a vat of acid. El Chapo owns 23,000 square miles in Mexico and has enormous amounts of power. Beith, a former Mexican journalist, now resides in America and relates that at least 45 journalists in Mexico have died trying to bring to light the corruption.

Spanning cultural differences and huge time gaps, all the authors were interesting and obviously passionate about their books. I have added Manhunt, Hellhound, The Last Narco, and Get Capone to my reading list.

I can’t embed the video, but the link is here. It’s long-ish but worth the watch.

Swanson, Sides, Hollinsworth, Eig, and Beith at Literature on the Lam

Wickedly Funny Noir

This was a quirky bunch. Harry Hunsicker moderated a panel of authors including Lou Berney, Jonathan Woods, and Mark Haskell Smith. I haven’t read any of these authors, but the panel itself sounded interesting. Each was laidback and humorous and focused mainly on writing itself and not individual books. Hunsicker asked if there is any pressure to be funny, but each responded in the negative, Burney saying he writes characters “who aren’t funny but have a good sense of humor.”

How do you make sex funny? Woods, Berney, and Smith all agreed sex just is sort of funny. In fact, Berney doesn’t like writing sex scenes: “It embarrasses me; it embarrasses my Golden Retriever.” He relayed a couple of humorous scenes from his book. Smith said sex is just plain awkward, and he starts with that. He, though, apparently doesn’t shy away from these scenes, instead writing every gory detail. (My mom went to another panel the day before and said it was the closest thing to porn she’s ever heard. Apparently people with children there walked out as there was no warning and a children’s author was on the panel. Odd)

All agreed, as Burney said, “You have to learn to love killing things.” There is not a lot of humor in crime, but as Smith said, often the people with the best sense of humor are in law enforcement. The gist was, if we can’t laugh at something, we might as well “put a collective gun to our collective head,” Woods said

The audience here definitely felt more like a bunch of amateur writers. You know the type. They are really there for validation of their own work as opposed to really listening to what the authors have to say. Not all amateurs are like this, but many are. I did ask a question, though, to see if any of these guys knew any other funny noir other than Dashiell Hammett who wrote around the same time. They gave me some more current names, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. It was a fun panel, though, and I will likely pick up Burney’s book Gutshot Straight. Mark Haskell Smith has written several books, Baked, Salty, Delicious, and Moist. Woods has a new collection of short stories Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem.

Hunsicker, Berney, Woods, and Smith at Wickedly Funny Noir


The weekend was fabulous, and I can’t believe I have to wait another year to go back. I will definitely have to find some bookish events in the meantime. I hope you, dear reader, have something fun and bookish to look forward to – any great events happening near you?