I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge fan of history. And that passion has only been growing lately as I’ve been dealing with a pretty strong obsession with the spectacular soundtrack to the Broadway smash Hamilton. Thanks to Hamilton I’ve gotten a whole lot more history books loaded up on my Kindle to start reading, so more and more of these articles may be focused around that topic. And it’s not just biographies either, because I’ve really been interested in historical fiction lately. A couple books ago I read Gore Vidal’s great novel Burr, but it’s not just serious fiction that interests me. A bit ago I wrote an article about the amazing movie Sullivan’s Travels, and about the importance of comedy. So imagine how happy I was when I realized that one of my favorites writers from Cracked, Jacopo della Quercia, had an insane novel about President William Taft and Robert Todd Lincoln racing around the world to stop a James Bondesque evil plot. And it was great. If you aren’t familiar with him, Jacopo writes some of the best articles over at Cracked, almost all about crazy aspects of history that you would never learn about in school. They’re fascinating reads, and his in depth love of history and humor pretty much guaranteed that this would be a great book, full of historical details and great gags that would add up to a fascinating little novel unlike anything I had read before. I mean, how could a book about a globe-trotting bare-knuckle boxing President Taft not be a blast?
Like I mentioned earlier, the plot basically is structured like a James Bond story, just with William Howard Taft as the spy. The novel posits a reality where William Taft is an exciting man of action who flies around the world on his own personal zeppelin, Airship One, while his wife Nellie is the real president. All of the goofy stories we hear about Taft, like getting stuck in a bathtub, are all the antics of a clockwork android made by Thomas Edison. Taft is enjoying his goofy life, exploring the world, until he’s visited by his friend Robert Todd Lincoln, who has a weird idea. After his father was killed he found in his possession a mysterious gold pocket watch that doesn’t appear to have any power source, yet ran perfectly, and has a inscription in Russian that says “Made in America.” And all of this weirdness, combined with a mysterious mining operation in Alaska being run by JP Morgan and Benjamin Guggenheim that’s giving off strange auroras lead them to believe there may be something alien afoot. And matters are made more confusing when with the help of Nikola Tesla they come across a strange telegraph conversation between several people seemingly talking about their elaborate conspiracy. Which coincides with an attempted assassination on Tesla and Taft’s robot going insane and trying to kill him and Ellie. He’s luckily saved by Secret Service chief John Wilkie, and they get investigating.
And after a couple months of running around the globe trying to find leads on the mysterious goings on of this group, and the backstory of Lincoln’s possibly extraterrestrial pocket-watch, not much comes up. They get some vague hints that it may involve the recently deceased dictator Leopold II of Belgium, and that JP Morgan may be involving the White Star Line in the conspiracy, but little else. That is until Taft’s son is kidnapped by the villains during an anniversary celebration at the White House, causing Taft, Lincoln, Wilkie, Archibald Butt, and the famous Buffalo Soldiers to storm Yale University to free Taft’s son. And this crazy fight scene gets them back on the track of the syndicate, eventually bringing them to the Belgian Congo in the hunt for the syndicate’s mysterious weapon of mass destruction. And it all leads them to good old Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who is able to use some of his deductive reasoning to explain that the pocket-watch runs on uranium, and isn’t alien at all, just a sign of the coming atomic age. And this results in all of our characters converging on one last exciting set-piece aboard the RMS Titanic during it’s doomed voyage.
This book is a blast. It’s an exciting thriller that really does read like a better Bond novel, all while remaining hilarious. I laughed out loud several times in the course of reading the book, and other times was stunned at the work that went into it. Because it wasn’t just a silly little romp through history. It was also incredibly well researched. Yes, Taft didn’t really cavort around the globe on an airship while fighting JP Morgan, but Jacopo put a lot of effort into establishing the time period, even putting in several footnotes that referenced real newspaper articles to back up the events going on. I’m a real sucker for alternate history stuff, and this book was right up my alley, taking real events and giving them a small twist, as if this was the true history that’s been kept secret from us, and everything we know about Taft, Morgan, the Titanic, and plenty of other things from this time period were all lies, because the truth was just too much for the public the handle. And I love that kind of stuff. Sadly William Taft was probably not really engaging in crazy bare-knuckle fighting matches in England while his wife was running the country, and JP Morgan wasn’t sending Life Model Decoys around in his stead, and Leopold II didn’t invent what’s essentially an atomic bomb in the 1910’s, but it sure is fun as hell to think about. I loved this book just as much as I love Jacopo’s articles, and I look forward to checking out everything he does in the future, especially because I see he has a second novel out already, called License to Quill that’s about William Shakespeare as a spy uncovering the Gunpowder Plot, which also sounds utterly delightful. Because it’s a blast to poke fun at history.
The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy was written by Jacopo della Quercia, 2014.