Writer Brad Meltzer has made a name for himself as a man who gets deep into the guts of American historical conspiracies.
With his string of best-selling books like “The Inner Circle” and “The Book of Fate,” Meltzer has spun stories involving secret societies and hidden murders from the nation’s capital to the birthplace of Superman. And in his cable TV series on History, “Decoded,” he and his team have investigated classic urban legends from the reach of the Free Masons to the story of D.B. Cooper. And of course, comic fans know the writer best for his secret-driven DC Comics projects like “Identity Crisis” and “Justice League of America.”
Today, Meltzer’s latest novel hits bookshelves across America, and the project ties in many of his previous ideas from books and comics. “The Fifth Assassin” centers on a serial killer bent on recreating the four successful Presidential assassinations in American history on a path to killing the current Commander in Chief. Not only does the story draw on his experiences as a researcher and fan of bizarre American history, but it also presents his first real sequel where he relies on the lessons of his comic book career. Meltzer discussed all of this with CBR News, explaining how a viewing of Abraham’s Lincoln’s skull fragments led to the return of protagonist Beecher White, revealing the secrets of Presidential assassins long forgotten and sharing how John Hodgman will help him break a world record.
CBR News: Brad, you often do a ton of research on your novels to build a strong sense of history into the plots. With a book like “The Fifth Assassin,” did the story grow out of your research in general, or did you light upon the idea and then track down as much as you could on each Presidential assassin?
Brad Meltzer: The odd part is that I’ve had this idea in my brain really for six or seven years now. I could be longer than that. But I just didn’t know how to use it. I really liked this idea that the assassins throughout history were all tied together. There was something I always knew that I liked about that. It is a very comic booky idea. It’s a “Secret Society of Supervillains” idea. But I didn’t know how to make it realistic.
Then a couple of years ago, one of my readers got in touch with me and said, “Brad, I work at this museum in Washington that nobody knows about, and you need to come see what we have here.” And because of “Decoded” on History, and because of the kind of books I write, no one gets crazier e-mail than me. I had someone bring the Holy Grail to one of my book signing. So if you’re looking for that, I had my hands on it for a few minutes. [Laughter] But when I got this e-mail, I kind of went, “Look, I’m really busy. Can’t you just tell me what you have?” And he said, “Well, we have pieces of Abraham Lincoln’s skull and the bones of John Wilkes Booth and the bullet that actually killed Lincoln. Would you like to come see that?” And I said, “Yes. I would like to come see that.”
When I got there, I realized they didn’t just have artifacts from the Lincoln assassination; they had the others as well. As I was sitting in this room of death, that’s where this idea came together. That’s where I finally got it. It was “What if a serial killer was recreating the crimes of John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and all the others?” It’s amazing if you listen to the universe what starts showing up for you. That was around the time on “Decoded” that we were doing the Lincoln Assassination where I’d heard one little detail and was like, “We can use this.” Again, you just put your ear to the universe, and it’s amazing what will show up.
The other interesting fact about this book is that it’s a true sequel for you. The plot doesn’t carry over from your last book, but we are dealing with Beecher White, your protagonist from “The Inner Circle.” In a way, you’re doing a Washington conspiracy version of Stephen King’s personal multiverse where your books tie together in small ways. What made it that you wanted to make Beecher the hero again?
The truth is that I wasn’t prepared to write Beecher until I got a little older. I felt like, “Any good book is like a good movie…if you do a sequel, you’re a total sellout.” I think when you’re 20 years old, that’s a great way to rationalize that you should never do a sequel. Then what happens is that you rationalize and say, “It’s okay to sellout” or you find a character that you know you can scratch at deep enough to know there are more stories there.
I think I looked around after writing eight books in a row and saw a pattern in my own work. And I never wanted to see a pattern in my work. I’d get a hero, put him in danger, he’d get himself out of it, and that was the plot. That’s good when you’re loving every second of that, but the moment you start feeling like it’s a pattern, it’s going to die. And it should die. So I thought, “What if I created a character that I give enough problems to that one adventure doesn’t solve it?” I think Beecher is more problematic than that, and in many ways, he came along in my life when I needed him most. He’s not wish fulfillment for me. He’s protective of me. Beecher is someone who lost his father and then really lost his mother, and here I am with two dead parents. I don’t think it’s any coincidence why this character was created. I think he’s there to solve my own problems, not just the problems I create for him.
The last book tied a lot of the adventure to Beecher’s personal life and even drew his high school sweetheart into the mix. Are those threads that continue here, or have you dropped him into an all-new situation as the assassination plot heats up?
Those are all coming back. You can read “Fifth Assassin” as a stand-alone. The nice thing is that the first reviews have come out and said you can read it alone. But if you read “The Inner Circle,” you’ll see that Clementine and Nico and how their problems are just getting deeper and deeper. Like any comic book, you can pick it up and enjoy it, but if you’ve been following along, there are more layers to it. I’ve absolutely been dealing with that from the first book to this book. And you’ll see at the end that it continues to the next book.
The assassinations of the presidents is a theme everyone knows something about, but as this book does a more personal take on it, well, you’re not old enough to have that direct memory of the Kennedy assassination, are you?
How old do you think I am, man? [Laughter] Kennedy was almost a decade before I was born. I do remember Regan being shot, and I remember the White House being shot at when Clinton was in office and I was living in Washington. I think what’s the oddest part for me is that when you look at these assassins over time is that with presidential assassins, there’s no pattern for what makes that person. It’s all ages, all economic backgrounds. But if you look at the four that were actually successful, they have so much in common. From John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, all four of them never did drugs. They’re all to a very meticulous and strange level total neat freaks. They are all people who kept to themselves and in large part were almost all delusional. Three out of four of them were in their 20s. And I really wanted to dissect how and why this happens.
What I found out is that when it comes to assassins, there are two types: hunters and howlers. And howlers make a lot of noise and say, “I’m going to get you and chop your head off.” For them, making the noise is enough. They just want to take some action. But hunters are different. Hunters are quiet and keep to themselves. They make plans and then execute them. What’s amazing is that howlers don’t hunt, and hunters don’t howl. And when you look at the presidential assassins that were successful, all four of them were hunters.
I understand that you’re setting a “Guinness Book of World Records” record this week in New York City to launch the book — and it involves decoder rings?
We are. On the day the book comes out, Tuesday the 15th, we’re going to try and break the Guinness record for most secret decoder rings worn in one place. Our judge for the event with be the admirable Judge John Hodgman, who has agreed to step forward and judge the affair. What’s funny is that when “Decoded” launched, everyone started writing me saying, “You’ve got to get secret decoder rings.” And I said, “That’s a great idea,” but I could not find rings that weren’t $10 a piece. I wanted to do the idea, but I couldn’t do it. Then, God bless the geek community, I found this guy Paul Pape of Paul Pape Designs. I got my hands on a decoder ring he did, and it was really cool. So I called him up and said, “Are you up for making a thousand rings?” And he said, “I can try!” So now we’re trying to break this record in New York, and then at every stop on my book tour, I’m going to bring decoder rings.
People will discover a lot of secrets about the history of assassins in the book. As someone who reads about this stuff all day, what was the one thing you learned that was completely new to you?
When I went to that room in the museum, there were things like the bullet that killed Lincoln that are always on display. The interesting stuff is the things they keep in the back that they don’t let anybody see. The guy took me in the back, and we were hunting through their archives, and there are some boxes in there that they can verify are real and some they can’t. They have the brain of Charles Guiteau who was the second assassin, the one who killed President Garfield. They have the bones of President Garfield in a drawer. It’s unbelievable.
One thing they pulled out was this little leather swatch, like from when you buy a sofa. It had some writing on it, and I said, “What’s this writing,” and he said, “That’s a tattoo.” That’s when I realized I wasn’t just holding a piece of leather. I was holding someone’s skin. They explained to me that this was a piece of skin they couldn’t tell if it was from an assassin or not. But when assassins would die, people would cut their hair or the lining of their coffin. They’d do anything to get a piece of these people. It’s like we do with saints. And over the years, these items get sold. There was one guy who for years stole items from the museum, sold them, and then they were brought back. So they have the trigger finger of Guiteau – literally the bones of his trigger finger that he used to shoot the president. But they can’t tell if that’s real or not, and they can’t tell if this skin is real or not.
When I saw the tattoo, in its corner there was a red diamond like you’d find in a pack of playing cards. This shows you how my nerd mind works, because my first thought was that I remember when John Wilkes Booth first shot Lincoln, every detail became known about that night. People can tell you the size of the horse he rode off on. They can tell you the name of the horse. They can tell you about the bar next door to Ford Theater where he went for a drink, exactly what drink he ordered before he went across to shoot Lincoln. But the only detail they don’t know is how Booth got past the White House valet. He famously walked up to the valet and gave him a card, and no one in all of history knows what was on the card that got him past the White House valet. Some say it was a calling card or a playing card because playing cards used to be used as calling cards. No one knows what it was.
And so my brain went, “A playing card could have been used by John Wilkes Booth, and now here’s a red diamond tattooed on this assassin.” To me, that’s when this gets creepy — when the stuff you’re making up feels like it could be real.
Your mind is going in places most of us might want to avoid —
[Laughs] This is not a healthy way to think. When I started finding these odd connections, I got into the history of playing cards and found that during the American Revolution, of all things the church had banned playing cards. And George Washington started ordering them by the dozens. I can’t help it but to go, “Why?” And the more I start digging through history, the more I find out that I couldn’t make up a plot like this because it really happened. I can pull that little thread and put on some dressing of fabrication. But so much of the throughline is absolutely true.
Have you ever come to a point while researching these things where someone goes, “It’s time for you to stop looking into this for your own good, sir”?
You know, for the past two years I’ve spent every day on my phone saying the words “president” and “assassination.” The NSA must be so sick of me at this point, and they should be. They’re not doing their job if they aren’t. And it’s not like there are any groups out to stop me or any nonsense like that. What I find is that when you get around the security of the President of the United States, you have people say to you, “You need to be careful with what you’re doing here.” It’s not in a threatening way, but there are some things in that which just should not be known by the general public. And it’s my job when I write these thrillers to try and find as many of them as I can.
One of the things I’m proudest of in the book is that I found the secret tunnels that exist below Camp David. And I can never say how I got them, and I’ve changed the security access stuff in the book so people can’t try to figure how to get down there, but I really believe my source on this one. And when you get to that point in the novel, you’ll see where they lead.
And since we’re here, I have to ask: do you know what your next comics project will be?
I’ve talked to some folks and really tried to find time in my schedule, but the truth is that my trip for the U.S.O. took the spot in my schedule that would have been for comics. I had a project I was really excited by, and it really became a choice between comic books or a trip with the U.S.O. to see the troops, and it was a once in a lifetime opportunity I had to take.
But my next comics work I actually completed last night. It was for Art Baltazar and Franco. They’re doing “Aw Yeah, Comics!” and they came to me and asked if I wanted to do a story. I said, “Can I do it with my four-year-old son?” He’s just in a huge “Star Wars” phase right now, and they said yes. So last night we wrote our three-page comic story together, which let me scratch my itch.
“The Fifth Assassin” is in stores today.