Historical novels, according to author John Smolens, are “a unique amalgam of fact and fiction, conjecture and illusion,” and that’s certainly what he gives us in his sixth novel, The Anarchist. The titular figure, Leon Czolgosz, was a disgruntled Polish American from Cleveland, only in his 20s when he took on the cause of anarchy in America, inspired by the work of Emma Goldman and other turn-of-the-20th-century ideological rabble-rousers who fomented revolution against the political and industrial status quo, in particular in northern midwestern cities like Chicago.
Czolgosz went down in history as the assassin of President William McKinley, and that event is the main focus of Smolens’ dogged piece of fiction, which early on traces the movements of both men until leading up to their fateful encounter at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo in September 1901. Smolens’ third-person account is driven by the surrounding activities of federal agents and a local lawman, immersed in the tawdry bordellos and gruff canal life of multiethnic Buffalo, striving to keep tabs on underground political activities and, at the story’s outset, investigating the grotesque dockside murder of a prostitute. The historical details of McKinley’s demise—he lived on for more than a week after his shooting, medical doctors somewhat confused about how to treat his fatal wound—are joined alternatingly with the account of Czolgosz’s finals days and his rather swift prosecution and execution, the latter taking place a mere six weeks after the crime. Smolens focuses the wind-up and climax of his book on the exploits of the feds—along with a key civilian informant, Moses Hyde—who become embroiled in an attempt by Czolgosz sympathizers to trade hostages for the assassin’s release.
Only one perceived hiccup in this well-researched historical novel: Smolens has the crowd singing “God Bless America” during one of McKinley’s public appearances; that song wasn’t written by Irving Berlin until 1918, and didn’t spread to the American consciousness at large until more than two decades after that. Nevertheless, The Anarchist is a well-rendered, credible mixing of documented events with imaginative projection into the tenor of a teeming American era, when the nation was embroiled in vaguely imperialistic activities abroad, the business world was booming and immigration was at its peak.
Martin Brady writes from Nashville.